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Historical perspective: Distance learning in one form or another was once quite common in the North and beyond

He’s enlightened us on home delivery of groceries and working from home, now Historian Dieter K. Buse is back with another historical perspective, this time on education in the North

Editor’s note: With the ups and downs of the school system over the past year thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, historian Dieter K. Buse looks at past school years that forced students, parents, teachers and school boards to roll with the punches.

As schools mostly closed and students went online during the past year, many spoke of it as novelty. Teachers had to “pivot” towards instructing by methods new to them. 

However, previously learning took place at a distance in many ways. Just like working from home or home delivery of groceries, distance learning is much less of a novelty than people seem to think.

Until well into the 20th century, teaching and learning were compressed into a much shorter time frame than now. Our grandparents’ and even our parents’ generations mostly went to school for four to six or eight years. 

Child labour on farms and in mines, or personal service in households was common, so formal schooling was limited to a few years. In Canada, until the end of World War II, most schooling ended with Grade 8, and at the most Grade 10. Further, education and teaching took a variety of forms. 

Rural living

For some, the reality of living in rural areas meant one small school house typically accommodated eight grades in one room, such as at Whitefish, Long Lake or Coniston in the Sudbury district during the 1920s-1940s. The eight grades symbolized the limit to which most were expected to aspire. In rural areas some of those schools closed during harvest and planting seasons. Only a select few students were considered capable or rich enough to continue to so-called higher education.

I personally experienced one of those eight-in-one classrooms (which also served as the community centre) with one teacher in Paddle River, Alta., (a crossroads eight kilometres south of the town of Barrhead and 120 kilometres northwest of Edmonton) from November 1948 to June 1949. 

The students were more punctual than the teacher who lived next door. Students rode ponies or walked to school, sometimes six or seven kilometres, and learning included keeping the stove going and washing the blackboard. 

At first, as refugees with no English, I and my brothers received the strap for not following the instructions we did not understand. It amounted to being hit across the hand by a weak and lazy teacher. An irony was that when we moved to Barrhead the following year, the same teacher taught me Grade 2 in one of those buildings that had been moved into the town as part of school centralization. 

Buses brought many youth from the hamlets and farms from all directions to Barrhead. Two 16-year-olds, who had not been to school, were placed in that second grade. 

I shared a two-person desk with one. I learned about life from my deskmate. He was responsible for the stove immediately behind us. He taught me how to write my initials in the wooden floor with the red hot poker. At age 16, school must have been a bore for someone who had handled horses, tractors and threshing machines.

Since they reached the magic age for leaving school by years’ end, we never saw those two again. A similar shift to centralization occurred in postwar Ontario.

To return to the larger story: Immigrant and rural defined most Canadians until at least the 1930s. Many examples show the imaginative ways that society dealt with education. One was the intermittent sending of a teacher to remote communities. Before the First World War and to address the problem of lack of literacy, organizations such as Frontier College went to lumber and mining camps to teach basic reading and writing. 

Among those teachers of adult immigrants in the Sudbury area (at Whitefish, 1911/1912) was Norman Bethune, later famous for medical inventions and supporting the republicans in the Spanish Civil War and the Communists in the Chinese removal of a reactionary regime.

Teaching by mail

Another form of getting education to areas without a teacher involved correspondence schooling. Teaching by mail has a long history and before bussing served many students. In Canada, starting in 1889, McGill University provided correspondence courses to rural teachers for upgrading.

By 1912, western Canadian universities offered self-study programs and by the 1930s education by correspondence filled many educational holes in the thinly spread population. So, like today, parents helped where they could or, more likely and also like today, learned alongside. 

In 1948-1950, my wife took her first two years of schooling by correspondence because her farm family lived half way between two Alberta towns 35 kms apart. 

The same system existed in the Sudbury region. One old-timer explained to me that some families in the 1920s and 1930s went to remote lumber camps in late fall, the husband as repairman and the wife as cook. They took their children along for the wood cutting season. While in camp the children did schooling by correspondence. It turned out that when they returned to Sudbury in March they were as far along in their studies, if not their socialization, as those who had stayed at their desks.

Northern Ontario’s School on Wheels

Radio, too, helped disseminate knowledge. From 1941 to 1965, the Canadian Farm Radio Forum provided education to farm families. Though more practical than the correspondence courses, it too defeated isolation and provided education to those separated, not be a pandemic, but by geographic necessity.

In Northern Ontario, one of the special ways to overcome the tyranny of distance involved using a rolling boxcar on rails outfitted as a school room. 

It contained all those dictionaries, encyclopedia, grammar books, maps and handbooks now compressed into google form. The rolling school came for a week, provided intense contact with a teacher, and then moved to the next railway junction to repeat the task of personalized teaching. For the time between visits, as with the correspondence system, students were on their own. 

Below is a description of how it worked. 

“To find a solution to the lack of available education, the Ontario Department of Education, in conjunction with the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways, began an experiment in 1926 involving a mobile school housed on a railcar. Teachers Fred and Cela Sloman … began spending the majority of their time travelling northern Ontario to teach students who would not have access to organized education otherwise,” states an article on the website

The article continued. “Each week during the school year, a Canadian National freight train moved the Sloman’s railcar to a different community between Sudbury and Timmins. It would spend about five days in the community before moving to its next destination. Students of all ages would board the school on wheels to learn all kinds of skills, including reading and writing, ordering from catalogues, childcare, and the basics of agriculture and creating food sources. 

After a five-day teaching stint, students would be left with enough homework to last them approximately one month until the school on wheels returned to them from a full tour of its 240-km northern Ontario schoolyard.” 

Karl and Mary Schuessler published a book on the topic entitled” School on Wheels” (Boston Mills Press, 1986). This uniquely northern form of schooling continued until 1967. 

If dedicated Canadians served the north with teachers in railcars, the Australians did the same with their school of the air, by which teachers were flown in rotation to cattle stations in the outback. 

During the early 20th century sometimes no teacher was available in an era when maintaining the school required a community effort. 

For example, for Garson School No. 1 (schools had numbers, not names), the following is recorded because sometimes villages could not afford to hire a teacher or none would go to remote places. 

“In 1908, families of the children who attended the school were asked to donate wood to keep the schoolhouse warm during the winter weather. Each family donated one and a half cords of wood to the school. By 1909, a woodshed was built for the school and in 1911, a porch was added to the building. As sometimes happened in the early days of education, school was cancelled for the 1917 and 1920 school terms as a teacher could not be found. By 1925, sixty children were enrolled in the one-room school.” [From Sudbury Heritage Museums] 

Perhaps the parents and students filled in by correspondence.

In sum, the mails, the railway, radio and adult education with itinerant teachers provided schooling before the compulsory age for completing school increased and before centralized education. 

Schools were on line in their own way and, like the electronic system of today, they offered substance to fill little heads and hearts. Today, we have to reflect on how well previous generations did with four to six years of schooling. Much education has long been offered where no teacher is physically or only intermittently present. However, technology cannot replace human conduct, and as an educator I know that many more can be helped by direct contact rather than any distant service.

Dr. Dieter K. Buse, Emeritus, Professor of History, Laurentian University; co-author of Untold: Northeastern Ontario’s Military Past, 2 vols (Latitude 46; 2018, 2019) which won the Ontario Historical Society prize for best regional study published in the last three years, and of Come on Over: Northeastern Ontario which won prize for best non-fiction book on Northern Ontario (2011).