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posted on July 25, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
Story about Barry Mcbride

As I walked
into the
Zoology mailroom
one day, head secretary Kathy Gorkoff
asked me if I’d met the new Dean, who was
standing right there.  Barry McBride wasn’t
on the job yet and wouldn’t be for another
few months.  But he was on the ball. 

He knew my
name and the main thrust
of my reasearch and said he’d like
to visit my hummingbird lab sometime.
I said “How about now?”, and
we were off on a fast walk
across campus.

As luck
would have it, my graduate
students and postdocs were hard at
work when we arrived – – designing, building,
and using equipment to perform experiments.
They hardly noticed  when we came in the door.
They were in a light, high mood  and responded
enthusiastically to Barry’s many queries.
He stayed only a few minutes, but
after that he always knew
all of our names.

“Hi, Lee.
Great day, eh? How’s it
going in the hummingbird lab? I keep
wondering how Gayle’s experiments are
turning out
.”  Other than chance meetings
on the sidewalk over the next few months,
the next time I saw Barry was after
I got a call from John Sams
in the Science Deanery. 

John said he
and Barry were cooking up
a new program, Science One, to be
offered to a small group of first year students
each year,
and several departments would con-
tribute faculty.  Students would get four courses’
credit, take no other science courses that year,
and be eligable for all majors or honours
programs in our faculty in
second year.

They were
striking a committee
to plan the program, which
would begin in two years’ time,
and wanted me to serve on it.

Imagining a range of scenarios,
I quickly realized that if they were
going to invest in something that
important, I wanted it to work
and wanted to be involved
at the start at the most
fundamental level.

But I knew I’d
be worse than useless
on a committee committed to
the wrong ideals, or to methods that
could never achieve them.  That
made it doubly important
that I be there.

I wanted in.
More than wanting in,
though, I wanted in on my own
terms. I told John I’d be happy to serve
on the committee, but only under an
important condition.  “What’s that?”,
John asked.  I said I’d tell them
both at the same time.

In our meeting a few
days later, Barry folded his
fingers in the air, looked at me,
and said
he understood I had a
condition for serving on the
Science One planning

“John and I think
Science One is exciting,
important, and worth funding,
and we want you on that
What is
your condition

I didn’t want to
help develop a program that
skims academic cream from the
entering crop of students, so to speak,
defining cream as academics usually
do in terms of grades; marks, as
we say in Canada.

If all Sc1
students were among
the top 100 applicants to
the Faculty of Science, I
wanted no part of it
and I told them so. 

“Why in hell not?”
Sams erupted.

The simple
version of my response, then
and now, is that pressure to get
marks can lead students to suppress their
curiosity and imagination and deny their
in favour of getting with the
program and ‘learning’
the material. 

I wanted
to work with open
minds, not just smart ones,
and would rather consider anyone
admissible to the Faculty of Science
and select on some other
basis than marks.

That way,
I argued, we could gen-
erate deeper, stronger, more lasting
learning, and more
students could enjoy
the benefits of the approach.  They would
gain views of the world, of science, and
of themselves that would guide them
for the rest of their lives. 

It seemed to
me then, and it seems
even more to me now, that
the most creative and productive
scientists are people like that.
Whether or not they got
the best marks in
high school.

They agreed
to my condition and I
served on the committee.
Doing that changed
my life and those
of others.


We don’t
select Science One
students mainly on their high
school marks. 
If they’re are admitted
to the Faculty of Science, we select on the
range of their interests and activities,
whether or not they’ve taken
all the Grade 12 science

A key part
of the application is an
essay about why they want to be
in a program like that, emphasizing the
breadth of their interests and the need
to integrate them, and to integrate
themselves, into one
whole being.

At least while
I worked in the program,
that simple essay was a thousand
times more useful to us than any
of us dreamed in sorting
out applicants.


In 1996,
the third year of Sc1,
Barry McBride gave a talk
somewhere about his program
and came class to learn
about it.

He came on
a Wednesday. 
Those were
always big days
in Science
One because so many kinds
of things happened and
that day was even

In the
classroom culture
of Science One, disciplines
that might otherwise be thought
of as separate, distinct “subjects” were
so deeply related to each other, and
related in so many ways, that
it made our heads swim.
It made students’
heads swim

 That day,
4 lecture-discussions
in 4 disciplines unfolded in
the room  in 4 hours, 
led by 4
profs in those fields.
Everyone engaged 
in all
of the discussions.

And Barry sat in the middle.

   The day when
Barry McBride came to class,
Physicist Jim Carolan was up in
the second hour and I went next.  Jim
ran well into my time in his excitement,
but he was on a roll and what he
did contributed to what I
wanted to do so it
worked out.   

My hour was
bedlam – – wild, wonderful,
and exciting for all of us. I talked
just enough to get things going
and keep them hopping, and
stood back to enjoy

the action.

Triggered by
a question I asked at the
start and powered
by the students’
knowledge, and passion to
understand how things work, and

by skills they had developed
for navigating that space,
we rode a wave

Action and ideas
floated around the room, and
Barry turned to face it wherever
it was
happening at the moment.
Sometimes it happened
all at once.

argument broke out.
Something about how best
to interpret some set of information,
which was usually what it was about.
A student ran to the blackboard to
develop her idea, another ran to
help her, and then it was
time  to stop.

It was, more or less,
a normal session.

we got to the planning
meeting we were a little high.
We had sushi for lunch, I remember,
because I turned purple clearing wasabi
fumes from my passages so I could
breathe.  Barry sat there and
listened while we did
our usual thing.

how-when-why’d” our
way through the next few sessions,
te our lunches, and talked about how
we could
help each other and
help students do all that

Consistently from week to week,
we talked about three kinds of things
in planning meetings.

We needed
to know
what we would be doing in class
for the next week, and how our disciplines
could, should, and would interact with each other.
Some people call that planning, and we did call them
planning meetings.  But we rarely really “planned
anything in the
normal senses.  We needed room
to move. We
often made things up on the fly
and needed to be free to do it.  We
didn’t want to be fenced in
by a plan.

We sat there
thinking together about
what  might happen, but not nailing
it down.  Brainstorming. Getting ideas
from each other.  It prepared
us to adapt
what we might be planning to do to what
happened around us and to help students
‘get’ what, how, and why we did those
and how to do them

That’s one thing.

We also
needed to understand
what worked and what didn’t, how
well our disciplines interacted, and what
students had and hadn’t accomplished
for themselves. 
That helped us to
learn from our experience
and prepare more effectively
for the future.

Most importantly,
and this ran through every
meeting, we needed to understand our
The more we observed and discussed
them with each other, the better we understood
them and
the better we helped them learn.
That helped us help them as a team,
too, not just individually, and it
helped us help each other.

Typically, banter
banged around the table,
bouncing from seriousness to levity,
from future to past to present, and from
the serious business of the course to jokes
about each other’s lunches to gossip
about students. Especially gossip.

At one point,
omeone said something
and I popped off a one-liner to
my colleagues that
I don’t teach them
very much”. 
Suddenly, Barry McBride
came to life, sat up straight and
said “
Boy, you sure don’t!”

If Barry had
been anyone other than the
Dean when he said that I might have
let it go.  But he was the Dean and I couldn’t,
and the issue was too important to ignore in any
Besides, as I learned from studying animals,
when an alpha male challenges you, you respond
if you have anything to say. This time I had a
lot to say and was determined that
Barry would receive it. 

And so I said
That’s right, Barry.  I
don’t teach them very much.
But they learn a lot. D
id you notice
the quality of the discussion
in there today

“Why yes!”,
he said, “That was
amazing.  So many of them
had so much to say.  They listened
and learned, and  even sounded
like they knew something

They sounded
like they knew because
they did know. They know a lot,
understand what it means, and
use what they know to
learn more.”

“But how can
they know so much if you
don’t teach them
?”  “It’s because they
, I said. “Students won’t read”, Barry
replied. “
They’ll read if you don’t teach them much,
especially if they know you’ll test them on it later.
My students read their butts off and t
why they sound like they know what
they’re talking about.”

To Barry’s
credit, that story was
beginning to make the rounds in classes
within a week and he told some of the best ones
on himself in the Deanery and elsewhere.  As a
student of education, Barry is pretty sharp. He
learned fast as Dean and kept learning fast
later as Provost.
Everyone can learn
about learning and about helping
other people learn and Barry
was willing to learn it.

What have
I learned by working with
Barry McBride? The most important
things, by far, are that administrators can listen,
they can learn, and they can use what they learn to
support real reform in education, inside and outside
their own formal domains. 
Not all administrators
are courageous enough to administer that way.

I never give reading
assignments by chapter or page.
I just say “Read whatever you can find
about blood, and there’s a lot of it. We‘ll be
talking about it for a while
and the more
you know at the beginning the more you’ll
know about every single thing we’ll
do for the next few weeks.”

Science One
director Julyet Benbasat
and I published a paper about the cross
disciplinary science programs we created.
Integration, interaction, and community
was part of a whole Special Feature I
Educating for Sustainability,
for the scientific journal
Ecology and Society

I’ve told the story
about Barry McBride in many talks.
Good examples are the videos and podcasts
Stories about Stories, Making Magic Together, and
A Decade of Innovation in Science Education

There is also an
important story about Barry McBride in

Two Stories about Roger Donaldson.

Edited May 2022


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