A recent article in "Professionally Speaking" (the magazine of the Ontario College Teachers) featured self-directed schools with a spotlight on two Ontario high schools that are built on this concept. These are places for learning where there are no classes; just student goals and a focus on independent work habits.
One of these self-directed schools, Mary Ward Catholic SS, explains in its mission statement that 'students flourish in a program of self-directed learning that calls on every student to be a leader in an achievement-oriented environment, and that all students can reach their highest potential through self-directed learning.' Wow. Now that seems like a step in the right direction. Differentiated instruction, multiple intelligences and preferred learning styles all rolled into one approach to educate our high school students - and in OUR province.
These are places where students come to learn with the knowledge that they are in control of how that learning will look. They set their own agendas in many ways and receive close attention from teachers who also function as their advisors. The statistics are impressive too. About 85-90% of students from the two self-directed Ontario high schools go on to attend college or university. Our provincial government's current goal is to have an 85% graduation rate in Ontario (79% in 2009) - which says nothing to the path of post-secondary education - that goal is simply to get students to finish high school not travel further than it.
Teachers at these schools are responsible for 18 students who will be in their advisory groups for their time as students at Mary Ward. This reminds me of the British system I worked in where there were Head of Year teachers who were assigned to a grade and then stayed with that grade (e.g. Year 8) all the way through until their graduation. This seemed like a good system and gave a closer bond between a group of students and one teacher who could advise, track and discipline as needed.
We don't currently have these roles in our public high schools. Guidance Counselors and Student Success teachers are in place to help students and monitor "at-risk" students; but imagine the close bond that forms between a teacher advisor and a student who is only 1 of 18 in that group (not an entire school population, or sometimes, A-K and L-Z). These self-directed schools demand face-to-face meetings with a teacher advisor to plan career paths, check academic progress and other short-and long-term planning on a continual basis. The communication between students and teacher is paramount and purposeful checkpoints are in place to ensure that students do not fall through the cracks or fall behind without a chance of intervening for their benefit. At home, student and parent are kept closely linked through the use of a wall calendar that tracks major units and assignment planning. It all sounds ideal.
So what is holding our conventional model of education in place throughout all the other high schools in Ontario? Is it too bold a step to scrap the old schematics and draw entirely new ones? It is ambitious - and scary - to begin anew in a sea of uncertainty. But it would also be liberating and exciting to walk a different road and see how it goes. Sometimes patching the problem works, but maybe we are approaching the point where there are as many patches as original parts. Why should we continue to fix the mistakes and add small parts of new ideas to the original framework? Some of these revolutionary educational ideas just don't fit inside the rows that some of our classrooms have to offer. They deserve a new environment in which to flourish and one that will command the respect of unsuspecting students as they are offered an ACTUAL new perspective to their learning. Not just some new buzz word with an international case study to cite its benefits. From the bottom-up. Students driving learning. A revolutionary idea - but not in at least two Ontario schools today.