Foundations of Education


Chronicles the intersection of social change and Canadian educational reform throughout the 20th century.

Key Concepts

  • New Education
  • progressive education
  • The Cold War
  • The "Space Race"

Graded Tasks

  • prepare for your seminar this week

Social Change and 20th Century Education 1

The excerpt from the textbook below chronicles selected developments in Canada’s educational systems throughout the 20th century.

As you read through the text, reflect on the ways education has shifted between different - sometimes competing - educational priorities, at times even reversing course.

CREDIT: The text below is excerpted from: Robson, Karen L. (2019). Sociology of Education in Canada. Toronto: Open Library Press Books, pp. 119 - 122. License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. URL:

1892 - 1920

Canada’s population dramatically increased between 1892 and 1920 due to mass immigration. During this time, about four million new inhabitants arrived in Canada. The Yukon (1898), Alberta, and Saskatchewan (both in 1905) also joined Confederation between these years, adding to Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Manitoba, which had joined earlier. Canada at this time was engaged in country-building and the “Canadianization” of new immigrants, which continued to be an overarching curricular objective. Growth of Canadian schools at this time is also greatly attributable to laws instituted around compulsory attendance. All provinces except Quebec had mandatory attendance laws by 1920. Increased enrolments and population growth meant the massive expansion of the Canadian education system.

In the early 1900s, New Education was introduced in English Canada, which incorporated less traditional topics of study into the classroom. Traditionally, the subjects covered in formal schooling focused mainly on English (literature and grammar), mathematics, learning Latin, and the rote learning of historical dates and geography. New Education introduced the subjects of home economics (“domestic science”), agricultural studies, and physical education to the curriculum, but not with uniform success. Kindergarten was also introduced as a New Education reform. At this point in history, the major purpose of public education in English Canada was to assimilate the large numbers of new immigrants at the time to dominant Anglo-Saxon values and to keep the Canadian curriculum free of American influence…

1920 - 1945

In the 1920s, New Education and similar reform efforts continued to gain popularity as British educators (influenced by progressive movements in the United States) continued to argue that education should be more encompassing than just the three Rs [i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic]. Learning purely through memorization was also regarded as a less acceptable pedagogical practice than it had been in the past, with more attention being shifted to the possibilities of students engaging in experiential learning. The late 1930s and early 1940s saw the beginnings of the progressive education movement, which is a pedagogical approach that prioritizes experiential learning (i.e., learning through doing and experiencing) over the amassing and memorization of facts. Reforms of this era were characterized as being more child-centred, activity-based, integrating various subjects where possible (Lemisko and Clausen 2006). For example, social studies emerged as a subject, which was the result of combining geography, civic education, and history. The content of this course, offered across grade levels, was based upon developing democratic and cooperative behaviour through experiential learning…

1945 - 1980

Although a mandate of Ryerson and many other education advocates of his time (and later) across Canada was to avoid American influences in curriculum, many American ideas found their way into Canadian curriculum in the post-war years, including the idea of scientific testing. The cultural content of the English Canadian curriculum, however, remained British. In fact, throughout curriculum development in Canada, there have often been marked efforts to keep the curriculum “Canadian” and culturally distinct from that used in the United States (Sumara, Davis, and Laidlaw 2001). Topics of study were British, although education influences were recommendations that had been adapted from prominent British educators through the influence of American education advocates.

The Cold War era, or the years following the Second World War, was associated with competition and political tension between the Soviet Union and its communist allies and the Western world - primarily the United States. Competition between the opposing sides manifested itself in two important ways. The first was the “Space Race” - which referred to a rivalry between [the two] sides as to which nation could lead in technological space exploration. The second area of major competition was the more ominous Nuclear Arms Race, in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in the stockpiling of nuclear arsenals. In these years the English Canadian curriculum followed the American lead and added more curricular emphasis on science and mathematics to reflect public opinion that remaining competitive with the Russians (who were thought to excel in these areas) was paramount.

The mid-1960s is associated with another major shift in curriculum across Canada. In English Canada, much pressure was put on the educational system to change in order to respond to the newer values and world views emerging at the time. In addition to less centralized control of schools and an increase in the regional specificities of courses of study, schools had to respond to demands from students and members of the public who had various concerns. Students wanted more “practical” knowledge that also reflected a more diverse (non-British) population. Advocacy groups cropped up in the form of federal agencies, consumer organizations, organized labour, and human rights organizations. These groups viewed classrooms as an ideal place to cultivate their desired social changes. Many rights movements also occurred in the 1960s - Aboriginal Civil Rights activism (as well as the Civil Rights movement in the United States) and the second wave of feminism across Canada, the UK, and the United States drew attention to racial and gender inequalities. During this period, advocacy groups representing Aboriginal and various minority groups moved to press for multicultural, non-sexist, and non-racist treatments of subject matter…

…Since the 1970s, additional shifts have occurred in curriculum across Canada. The 1980s was marked by an increase in centralization (after decentralization in the 1960s) to create more accountability. Standardized testing was re-introduced (after having previously been abandoned) and more focus was again placed on skill performance in reading, writing, and mathematics. Teachers resisted these top-down demands and insisted on being included in decisions around curriculum reform. The inclusion of teachers in curriculum reform became accepted practice in the 1980s.

1990 - Present

The 1990s were again characterized by large reforms in several provinces that were in response to various factors including the perceived poor performance of Canadian students in international rankings as well as high dropout rates. Inclusiveness was also emphasized in the reforms, with efforts to engage and represent a wider diversity of perspectives. A basic core academic curriculum, to be completed by all, was supplemented with alternative subjects within which a student could pursue his or her own interests. This new curriculum was adopted with the mandate of responding to the diversity of the population and better preparing young people for the labour force. New high school curriculum emphasized career-related skills (e.g., skills in technology and communication) in addition to academic study, with the intention of preparing students to be productive future citizens with a variety of skill sets. An anticipated outcome of accommodating a more diverse student population was the retention of students who would otherwise be at high risk for dropping out.


Lemisko, Lynn Speer and Clausen, Kurt W. (2006). Connections, contrarieties, and convolutions: Curriculum and pedagogic reform in Alberta and Ontario, 1930 - 1955. Canadian Journal of Education. v29.4, pp.1097 - 1126.

Sumara, Dennis et al. (2001). Canadian identity and curriculum theory: An ecological, postmodern perspective. Canadian Journal of Education. v26.2, pp. 144 - 163.

'The Swinging of the Pendulum'

Educational historians sometimes use the metaphor of the ‘swinging of the pendulum’ to explain how educational approaches that are in vogue at one time sometimes take a 180 degree turn - due to the influence of social change, changes in governments, educational research, and/or other forces - reversing course and going in the opposite direction.

The most often cited example of this relates to how the 3 R’s (i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic (math)) are taught in schools. Another example, cited in the above excerpt, relates to the curriculum of schools - I.e., whether high school students should only have access to a small group of required core courses or a wide selection of optional elective courses.

It has not been unusual in the history of Ontario (and other jurisdictions) for a change in provincial governments - switching between Conservative, Liberal, and/or New Democratic control - to usher in significant changes to educational priorities, at times moving away from or even reversing the educational priorities of the previous government.

Here are a few examples of the ‘swinging of the pendulum’ metaphor in education:

  • emphasis on core courses < --- > wide choice of elective courses
  • rote learning and memorization < --- > hands-on experiential learning
  • standardized 'paper and pencil' tests < --- > holistic 'task-based' assessment
In preparation for your seminar this week, write out an answer to the following question. Your TA may call on you to share your answer in the seminar:
Q8.4: Drawing on your own school experience, share an example of how you were taught in two diametrically opposed ways by two different teachers. (Use pseudonyms instead of the real names of the teachers.) Which pedagogical approach was most effective in supporting your learning? (Answer Length: 150 - 200 words | Format: Sentences)
Potential Seminar Question