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Lloyd Dennis ushered in a new approach to education

Lloyd Dennis, who died on March 7 at his home in Orillia, Ont., at the age of 88, was one of his generation's most influential educators, revered by many and misunderstood by some.

Raised in the hardscrabble backwoods of Depression-era Muskoka, Dennis was a Second World War paratrooper and a postwar Toronto grade school teacher and principal, who became prominent with the 1968 release of Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario, better known as the Hall-Dennis Report.

The progressive report advocated scrapping rote learning and regimentation for a child-centred, inquiry-based model that would tailor lessons to students' individual needs and interests. Personal discovery was in; corporal punishment was out.

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Walter Pitman, the NDP's education critic at Queen's Park at the time, writes that he first looked at the report for a way to criticize the minister of education, William Davis.

"Instead, I found myself captivated by the sensitivity and vision of this beautifully presented document that articulated everything I had come to believe about learning.

"Living and Learning became the most internationally recognized and respected report ever produced in Ontario and perhaps the most-quoted document ever published in the province. But, to its critics, it also became the perceived cause of everything that was, and was seen to be, wrong with the schools of Ontario – even though its recommendations were never legislated in any consistent way throughout the jurisdiction."

Lloyd Arthur Dennis did not choose the easiest day of his mother's life when he was born on Nov. 9, 1923, at the Burton's Mill logging camp, where Bessie Dennis was working as a cook. Bessie was anticipating that her good friend, Alice Milford, would assist as midwife. But the evening before Lloyd's birth, Milford's son came to the door of the cookhouse to ask if Bessie could "lay out" his mother, who had just died of the flu. The next morning, after feeding the loggers their breakfast and setting out their lunch, Bessie took a shortcut through a swamp to prepare her friend for burial, returning to the camp that evening. Dennis was born before midnight, with the nervous assistance of his father, Alf.

As their second son was growing up, Alf and Bessie moved him and his brother, Vernon, from place to place, lumber camp to rural hamlet, school to school. They sought work wherever they could find it. And if it was cooking at a lumber camp, this meant for Bessie 20-hour, backbreaking days. She was the dominant force in the family; the more diminutive Alf, a bookkeeper and some-time labourer, a secondary presence.

Life became more settled for the family by Dennis' early teenage years, when they were able to settle in Huntsville. He attended high school in the town, played goalie for the school's hockey team and became part of a gang of fun-loving friends. Then came the Second World War in 1939. Alf, Bessie and Vernon left Huntsville for jobs at the munitions factory in Nobel, Ont., just outside Parry Sound. Dennis joined them later that winter, leaving school at 16, before graduation, his decision prompted in part by being jilted by a girl.

He landed a job as the assistant director of the factory's recreational club. By 18, he was married to a blonde beauty, Dorothy Swartz, who had arrived at Nobel in circumstances similar to his. A few days after their wedding, Dennis waved goodbye to a forlorn group standing on the Parry Sound station platform and left for basic army training in Toronto.

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Although he ended the war an elite soldier, a lieutenant in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, one of the great regrets of his life was that he did not make it overseas into action. Two months into a training stage at Camp Borden, a company commander told him to ship out for officer training in Trois Rivières, Que. The army had identified him as officer material following a routine IQ test. By August, 1943, Lloyd Dennis, 19, was an officer in His Majesty's Army. Cooling his heels at a base in Peterborough two months after D-Day, Dennis thought a transfer to the Parachute Battalion might move him ahead in the overseas queue. But it was not to be.

He later recounted an incident near the end of the war when he was upbraided by an officer of the field-tested Royal Hamilton Light Infantry: " 'You Zombie! You sit on your ass here at home while real men do the fighting for you!' … In his abusive tirade, he had put his finger upon the one chink in my armour. After all was said and done, I had little to show for my resolve. He had it all."

But the resolve remained. When Dennis was in his 80s, he would close the loop. Tethered to a professional skydiver, he made one last parachute jump, this time over the fields of Europe.

After discharge, Dennis reunited with his wife, his parents, his brother and sister-in-law and one nephew in a small semi-detached home in east-end Toronto that he and his wife purchased. He attended rehabilitation school for his senior matriculation and what was then called Normal School to become a teacher. Speaking at Dennis' funeral, Ed Rutherford recalled arriving on Sept. 8, 1947, as a 19-year-old at the school.

At the top of the stairs stood a formidable figure that Rutherford took to be a member of the faculty. Walking up the stairs toward the 6-foot-2 Dennis, Rutherford blurted out: "I don't know where I'm going or what I'm doing." With the quick wit, deadpan delivery and playfulness that Dennis was known for all his life, he retorted: "You don't know where you're going or what you're doing, and you want to be a teacher?" Then added: "I don't know where I'm going or what I'm doing, and I'm also a student. Come on."

Of the 300 male members of the 1948 Normal School Class, 280 were veterans. Dennis demonstrated his natural leadership ability later that morning when he assembled them by order of height and asked each to introduce himself. Then he encouraged questions. Rutherford asked Dennis how many times he had jumped out of an airplane. "Oh, I never jumped, but I was pushed out 141 times." Dennis became president of student council.

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His first teaching job was a Grade 8 class at Adam Beck Public School. He became a curriculum consultant, authored four textbooks, and when he turned 35, accepted an appointment as the youngest-ever Toronto School Board principal. A weekly full-page children's feature for the Sunday Toronto Telegram, Acorn Alley Tales, which Dennis penned for six years beginning in 1957, helped his growing reputation as an innovative educator. Senior administrators at Ontario's burgeoning Ministry of Education began to take notice.

The mid-1960s saw the stars align for educational reform in Ontario. The economy was on a roll; government coffers were flush. Baby boomers were swelling school rolls. Yet the curriculum had remained unchanged for half a century. An ambitious young politician, Bill Davis, later to be premier for 14 years, was minister of education at the time and began the reform process. In 1965 he launched the 21-member Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in Ontario, chaired by Supreme Court Justice Emmett Hall.

Early in 1966 Dennis became the committee's secretary. Kurt Clausen, associate professor of education at Nipissing University, says in a forthcoming book about the Hall-Dennis Report that Dennis showed himself to Hall as being an innovative thinker, a hard worker and someone who could keep the committee on track. By year's end he was the co-chair.

Although Dennis is usually credited as being the report's author, the 258 recommendations found in Living and Learning had the stamp of all 21 committee members.

Dennis became the sole spokesman for the report following its release. Writes Walter Pitman: "I watched him as he courageously tramped tirelessly back and forth across the province. … He was indefatigable in the face of abuse and the perverse misconstruction of his message. He put his health and mental stability at risk."

The report was controversial. Davis invited Dennis to lunch at an upscale Toronto restaurant in late 1968 and over coffee dismissed Dennis in the latter's words, "in a summary fashion." It was a grievance that Dennis nursed 40 years, until a short letter arrived in 2009 from Davis to support an unsuccessful attempt to have a new school in Orillia named after the educator.

Dennis' thinking on education reverberates to this day. Kim Fedderson, dean of Lakehead University's Orillia campus, says that in many ways, Dennis "is the pedagogical architect of this campus with its focus on interdisciplinary studies and inquiry-based learning.

"Some misunderstood his view of student-centred education, labelling it as permissive, indulgent, radical and untested. On the contrary, his views were deeply traditional. Like Aristotle, Dennis was concerned with individuals realizing their potential. Both argued that true happiness depended upon our having the opportunity to develop our individual gifts in relation to recognizable standards of excellence."

Even in his last years he remained passionate about the core principles embodied in the report, says Mark Bisset, a friend.

"He never lost faith that it was exactly the right way to approach teaching," Bisset recalls. "But I think he felt Ontario had turned its back on Living and Learning, and that really troubled him. I told him the report would always be there, and that some day it would be mined again. It seemed to make him feel better for the moment, but I don't know if he died with the sense of satisfaction he should have felt about his enormous contribution to education."

Unfortunately, the years of Dennis' meteoric postwar rise from public school teacher to Canada's most influential educator were also unfortunately a period of declining mental health for his wife. About the time of the Hall-Dennis report's release, Lloyd and Dorothy divorced. "There was always deep regret on my father's part," says daughter Susan Dennis. "My mother, sick as she was, was a match for my father in integrity, wisdom and character. Sadly, it had a tragic end."

Susan remembers her father making life "magical" for her and her older sister, Gale. "Gale was a close confidante of my father, helping him edit his book Treasure Chest of Muskoka Memories and numerous articles. They shared a special relationship because Gale was a teacher."

In 1969 Dennis accepted an invitation to become director of education at the Leeds Grenville Board of Education in Eastern Ontario, a position he held until 1979.

In 1980 he moved to Orillia and eventually married Marilyn Cockburn, the real estate agent who sold him his residence on the shores of Lake Couchiching. Marilyn became a close partner and strong support in the last third of his life.

Dennis spent his remaining 32 years speaking or lecturing to a diverse range of audiences, writing his memoirs, travelling and telling stories about his peripatetic childhood in the pages of Orillia's daily newspaper, the Packet & Times. A consummate role player and prankster, he enjoyed nothing more than trotting out his Treasure Box to entertain children in classrooms and around campfires. He mentored and counselled hundreds of teachers and would-be teachers, sharing his advice as well as his passion for the profession.

Dennis was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1971 and later received the Order of Ontario. He served on the school council of the now-shuttered David H. Church P.S. in Orillia, where he would often drop by to chat with students and staff. There he established Lloyd's Cookie Jar, which sat on the office counter, and into he deposited honoraria from his speaking engagements. This money was to assist families and children with items they might not otherwise be able to afford. The model was a tin that Bessie Dennis always kept for a similar purpose when Dennis was growing up.

Mark Bisset and Kim Fedderson contributed to this article.

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