Introduction (6th Edition)

This book was written for those who want to know more about educational administration and school organization. We see the book having three main audiences. The first includes those who are studying educational administration and school organization as part of an undergraduate or graduate program in a university. The second audience is students enrolled in a post-degree or graduate course in which the book is used, either in whole or part, to provide a Canadian perspective in areas where there is not a substantial scholarly literature. The third audience consists of a wider public, such as school board members, school advisory council members, or interested parents who have come to be involved with school administration and want to develop a better understanding of this subject.

Many students regard the study of school organization as a subject that has little connection with the everyday realities and needs of teaching. This is probably particularly true of those in preservice teacher education programs, who may be inclined to regard this course as another requirement unrelated to what they want and need to know to become a teacher, such as how to manage a classroom. However, as we try to illustrate throughout the book, matters of school organization are important precisely because they have such an enormous influence in determining the nature of teachers’ work and of students’ learning experiences. Learning about school organization is important not just as an intellectual exercise, but because such knowledge gives all those involved in public education the ability to understand and be more effective in their work environment.

Another important purpose of this book is to help readers become critical learners and thinkers. When we use the term “critical thinkers” we mean people who ask questions about why things are as they are, who evaluate practices and ideas based on careful analysis and evidence, and who are committed to trying to change things for the better. This requires that people think carefully about schools and how they work.

We do not regard education at any level as being simply a matter of learning some set of essential facts. Rather, we believe education should focus on central ideas and questions that are more important than particular pieces of information. Facts, obviously, have their place—any worthwhile idea or opinion must be supported by reason and evidence. One cannot have an informed opinion without some knowledge about the matter at hand. At the same time, formal education has too often consisted of memorizing discrete pieces of content without placing them in a larger framework or connecting them to each student’s own understanding of the world.

In this book we try to focus on the enduring issues in education in Canada while also taking account of the important changes that are occurring. Rather than focus on facts, we try to stress ideas and questions. We do so because the questions will remain, even though the facts may change. For instance, we might have listed—and students might be asked to learn—the law regarding home schooling in all ten provinces. But that law will change over time, while the central questions concerning home schooling (for example, around the ability of the state to compel behaviour) will not change. Learning the current law may be important for a particular purpose or for thinking about the larger questions, but by itself it is not enough.

Consider also what it means to “know a fact.” Take the fact, well supported by research, that in most classrooms boys speak more often than girls, are called on by teachers more often, get more attention from teachers, and interrupt girls quite regularly. Does being able to repeat this sentence on an exam mean that we know it? Or do we truly know it only when we have internalized it to the extent that it affects our behaviour as teachers and students? Furthermore, could we say that a young girl in elementary school, subject to being interrupted, “knows” this fact even though she could never articulate it? In other words, there are various forms of knowing, and our interest is in the form that means more than the ability to repeat something—namely the integration of that knowledge into our ideas and behaviour.

This sort of knowing depends much more on the students than it does on teachers. Of course, teachers can play an important role in showing students connections among ideas, in asking probing and challenging questions, in pushing students to articulate the full implications of their ideas, and in treating students with respect and consideration. But in the end, it is the students who must determine the meaning that ideas have for them, and who must integrate new knowledge with their existing ideas, beliefs, and values.

To make this statement is to describe a socially constructed version of knowledge. By this we mean that knowledge is something people make for themselves, whether individually or, more often and more powerfully, in groups or social settings. Our sense of what the world is and how it is to be understood comes from the collision between each of us as a person—our ideas and experiences—and the events of our lives, many of which are beyond our control. People can and do disagree vehemently on what seem to be straightforward matters. Is education improving or getting worse? Are teachers dedicated professionals or overpaid babysitters? People disagree on these questions because our predilections, life experiences, and social context have pushed our thinking in different directions.

There is, then, no single right way of looking at the issues raised in this book. Indeed, we hope and expect that there will be active debates about many of these issues in and out of class. Readers should treat the material in the book not as something to be written down in notes and memorized, but rather as a basis for debate, what is sometimes called “interrogating the text.” Discussing differing perspectives and learning to understand how others see the issues (and why) is to us a critical part of education at all levels.

On the other hand, we do not believe that one opinion is as good as another. Anyone who truly did believe this statement would be unable to maintain any opinions of their own because there would be no basis for preferring them to any other opinion. It is important to test our ideas and opinions against those of other people, against data or evidence on the matter in question, and against the ideas of scholars in the field. We should strive always not just to have an opinion but to develop an informed opinion—one that can be supported or justified by careful, reasoned argument and the best available evidence.

Critical thinking and informed opinion, however, are not sufficient in themselves. They must be directed toward some goal or objective. Fundamental to our writing this book was our wish to foster in readers the desire to make schools the best places they can be. This task requires an understanding of schools as they currently exist, and of the factors that have shaped and continue to shape them. It also requires a moral commitment to particular values. But just as importantly, it requires that people be prepared to work to have those values realized. If the earlier two elements are difficult, this last is even more so.

A goal of improvement means that schools are places of struggle. People will disagree about what schools can and should do, and about how they should do these things. Such disagreements can and will occur between teachers and administrators, between teachers and students, between teachers and parents, and among people in each of these groups. Individual teachers are often themselves struggling with what they mean by schooling and education, and with how best to achieve their goals. Schools, like all human activities, are, in a sense, re-created every day by the actions of people who choose to do things differently, to learn from experience, and to try something new. Far from seeing this struggle as a problem to be overcome (“if only we could agree once and for all”), we see it as a fundamental condition of human existence. The struggle can be frustrating and difficult, but it can also be invigorating and tremendously rewarding. It is the opportunity to make the world a better place that makes teaching such an important and potentially rewarding activity. As Foster (1986) puts it, “We, as teachers and administrators, are engaged in a profession whose purpose is to make a difference. The joy of being an administrator or a teacher is to recognize and understand that each life makes a difference” (p. 70).

A Focus on Provincial Public Schooling

The purpose of this book is to help readers understand the different ways in which organize Kindergarten to Grade 12 education in schools under provincial jurisdiction in Canada. We have been asked over time to add more content related to First Nations schools.  Although we have added more information about Indigenous education to this version, we recognize that this text does not do justice to First Nations schools on reserve that are under federal jurisdiction, nor does it comment significantly on private or independent schools that exist in various provinces.  We suggest that it is impossible to compare systems that are significantly different in how they are governed, administered and organized.  In fact, we would advocate that an entirely separate book needs to be written about First Nations schools, their histories, contemporary issues, governance structures, and educational programming and outcomes.  It would not be equitable to “compare” systems that have entirely different histories of development, and if we were to try to do justice to a comparative text (if the data were available, and much of it is not available for federally funded schools), the length of our book would likely double at least.  To that end, we have added in commentary in places where it would be helpful to consider differences or similarities in the design of these systems, but we do not claim that this text is a fulsome representation of First Nations schools on reserve.  We believe that First Nations schools on reserve deserve attention dedicated specifically to their purposes, design, and enactment.

The Organization of This Book

In writing this book, we tried to keep in mind issues of design and organization as well as content. Features such as case studies, real examples, and current Canadian data are intended to make the text both more interesting and easier to understand.

The book begins with broad issues of school organization, while later chapters focus more on the school and the classroom. Recognizing that there are numerous interrelationships among the elements in the various chapters, and that the ideas are interconnected, we have done some cross-referencing in the text but have tried to avoid making the practice annoyingly frequent. The order in which the chapters are studied can certainly be altered, with the exception of Chapter 1, which should be read first. Chapter 10 looks at some of the main changes that are occurring in the context of education, so some readers may find it useful to read this chapter earlier as well.

The chapters have been organized around a number of central questions or issues, which are introduced at the beginning of each chapter. In addition, the chapters begin with a prologue—a vignette intended to illustrate some of the links between the practice of teaching and the ideas presented in the chapter. We have left it to readers to make use of these, as well as their own, connections between the text and the realities of daily life in schools.

The book has an explicitly Canadian focus. To that end, we have included examples, statistics, excerpts from documents, and other data drawn from various parts of Canada. The reading lists and references draw extensively from Canadian sources, though we also include relevant sources from elsewhere. These materials are intended to promote class discussion or debate and may form the basis for written assignments in a course. We also encourage you to include, where appropriate, material from your own province or local area.

The exercises at the end of each chapter are intended to focus attention on many of the key points made in the chapters. They range from the relatively simple to the complex and can be used in various ways. Some are appropriate for use as course assignments, depending on the instructor’s wishes. Others can be used as class activities to promote discussion, and still others can be taken up by students independently as a way of expanding their understanding of the issues raised in the book.

Sources of Current Information

Although we have endeavoured to provide the most recent available information, it is inevitable that some of the material will be outdated by the time you read it. Many aspects of education across Canada are changing rapidly. New legislation is regularly being introduced into provincial legislatures but that legislation may take years to become law and may be altered or withdrawn in the meantime. All provinces collect a multitude of statistics related to public schooling but these statistics may only be collated and published a year or more after they were collected. Inter-provincial comparisons often take longer to generate.  It is important, then, for readers to seek out the most current information on their own situation by looking at materials produced by provincial governments, teacher and school board organizations, school districts, and others interested in education.

The Internet has become the primary source of current information about education. Most educational organizations have websites that include access to documents, or at least information about current documents and issues. These include most provincial departments of education and most national organizations as well as many school districts and schools. University faculties of education also have online information on current research.

No book can possibly contain everything a reader might want to know. Moreover, we regard it as particularly important for students to seek out other points of view on the issues we raise, and not simply to accept our version. The references at the back of the book provide some sources and suggestions, but there are many other worthwhile readings for students to discover.

Sources of Scholarly Work on Education

Careful and substantial empirical evidence ought to be a vital part of education policy and practice. The research literature on education has been growing rapidly both in Canada and beyond. It is increasingly important for all educators to have an understanding of current findings of research in order both to look for practices that have the promise of better results and to avoid putting effort into the latest fad that may be just as suddenly abandoned a few years later. It is particularly important to avoid giving too much credence to any single study, but to look for well-developed bodies of work in which a number of studies reinforce similar conclusions.

Fortunately, developments in information technology have made access to current research much easier than it used to be. Many research databases can be searched online, and a great deal of original research and research summaries and syntheses are also available electronically. Many university libraries now have online access to the full text of important journals in education, making these publications much more accessible to readers. An increasing number of journals are also publishing online to make reader access easier.

Many research sources are available on sites that are often linked to related sites, and up-to-date information and reports are usually available for reading or downloading. The websites of many Canadian education organizations also contain links to useful research, as noted in the previous section. Developments in other countries are often available online, which often provide interesting contrasts to Canada.

Much of the statistical information in this book is drawn from Statistics Canada sources. Statistics Canada provides a range of sources, including published reports, offices in many Canadian cities that can be visited in person, and electronic data sources, available in many university libraries, makes census and other data easily accessible—for example, to determine the economic or demographic characteristics of a school district. However, the excellent Statistics Canada website <> is the primary vehicle for locating the information from the vast bodies of data that they maintain.

It is also important to keep in mind that as education is increasingly interconnected with other policy fields, research in such areas as economics, child development, community health, and families may have important implications for schooling and teaching. We encourage you to search broadly for material relevant to your interests.

The 6th Edition

The revisions for this 2021 version of Understanding Canadian Schools: An Introduction to Educational Administration have been written by Dawn Wallin and Jon Young. However, the work remains the work of the three authors listed on the title page – Dawn Wallin, Jon Young, and Ben Levin.


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