During the nine years Dr. Jeffrey MacCormack was an elementary school teacher in Ontario, he came to a hard realization. “Some kids were falling through the cracks,” he says. “School wasn't a rich or meaningful experience for them; it felt like an obstacle.”

Eventually, MacCormack left teaching to pursue a PhD in education at Queen's University. In 2016, he joined the University of Lethbridge’s Faculty of Education as an assistant professor and became a member of the University’s Institute for Child and Youth Studies.

Among MacCormack’s research projects, he has looked at social play, autism spectrum disorder, emotional well-being and youth development. Currently, he's working with neuroscience professor Dr. Robbin Gibb (BASc (BSc) ’77, MSc ’01, PhD ’04) on a play-based intervention for children and youth with difficulty socializing and regulating emotions.

MacCormack has previously found that play-based programs that incorporate interesting play activities, such as Lego™ and Minecraft™, can be structured to help youth with autism become competent in social interactions. The type of child-centric, interest-based programs MacCormack studies have helped those youngsters develop community, practice important social skills, and feel comfortable trying new things in safe spaces. He discussed his work in October during an on-campus speakers’ event that also featured anthropology professor Dr. Janice Newberry.

Although MacCormack’s projects may seem disparate, they are part of an overarching theme in his research: to ensure the success of all children, whether they require special assistance or are academic “high flyers.”

The problem is, MacCormack says, the education system focuses on standardization and efficiency. He likens current models of education to a mother duck ushering ducklings across a road; everyone must travel at roughly the same pace.

But for children to do their best, they must have individualized plans for their education, says MacCormack. As proof, he points to his own family. His youngest daughter Ella is advanced for her age and she does not always feel sufficiently challenged in a traditional classroom setting.

The solution, MacCormack says, is to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to education. “In our efforts to build efficient systems of education, we have deprioritized components such as interest-based tasks, lifelong play and individualized programs, which are crucial to building places where all students can thrive.”