Riding a Roller Coaster – How Self Directed Learning has Changed my Views on Education

Riding a Roller Coaster – How Self Directed Learning has Changed my Views on Education


Your seatbelt is fastened, the ride is still, and you sit with anticipation. There is no turning back, and your mind races with a mix of anxiety and excitement. This frozen moment in time congeals calm and chaos. From a still frame shot, it’s hard to tell if the roller-coaster ride has just ended, or if it’s just about to begin, as the start gate and stop gate appear no different. To you, the rider, these two moments in time, are of stark comparison.

Just over a year ago, I sat at the start gate, and prepared for an incredible roller coaster ride: A year at Thomas Haney Secondary, a self directed high school. I thought I was ready. I thought I had the courage, the curiosity, and the skill set to help lead in this high school environment. I was excited for the new challenge. But, just like the over zealous child, the first couple of twists and turns left me wide eyed and totally out of my comfort zone. I soon realized most of what I knew about education was – well – wrong – or at least not applicable.

My first couple of weeks at Thomas Haney I had more questions than answers. Moving from a semestered high school to a linear self directed high school was a big adjustment. Many of the traditional norms that I was accustomed to seemed to disappear: fully scheduled classes, movement dictated by bells, teacher directed instruction, departmentalized schools, before and after school meetings, organized chaos. It was all gone. And at first – that seemed wrong. Certainly school, for the sake of being school, must conform to these basic assumptions. I looked for meetings – meetings that did not exist. I wondered how staff and students could collaborate and learn without structure… I didn’t see what I was looking for. The students seemed relaxed, the teachers appeared stress free, the days seemed to end earlier, the demands diminished. Something must be wrong. This is not how schools usually feel. Everything I knew failed me, and just like the child at the peak of the first hill, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.

Then, a crazy thing happened. I fell in love with the ride. Like a breathtaking view from the coaster peak, I too had a new view: a new view on eduction. A view you can only see when you ride the coaster and dare to re-imagine school as we know it. I realized I had been viewing the school from a traditional lens, looking for what was different. My intention dictated what I saw. When I found the courage to open my eyes and enjoy the ride, I found the magic: the magic of Thomas Haney.

From traditional measures often used to assess schools, our school does well. Our students perform above provincial averages on exams, our graduation rates are in the high 90’s and our students win their fair share of awards and scholarships. However, that’s not the magic. The magic is not in where we arrive but how we get there. Before I explain the magic of our school let me first give a quick description of how it works.

In our grade 8-12 school every student is part of a teacher advisory (TA) program that meets twice a day. Each teacher has a multi-grade TA of approximately 23 students. These TA’s become like families. Siblings are placed in the same TA, and each student gets to work with the same TA teacher for five years. On Monday mornings, they set weekly goals together and each day check in on learning plans and achievement. The TA is also the home away from home offering a safe environment, sense of community and solid friendships.

We encourage students to BYOD (Bring your own device), and our teachers offer a blended learning model with face to face instruction blended with online resources. Our grade 8’s are fully scheduled for 5 blocks a day, Monday to Friday, with the only exception being Monday where the entire school participates in Y Block – a one hour tutorial of sorts where every teacher is available and students choose where to learn. By grade 9, students have been introduced to the self directed learning principles and they are handed one third of their time to choose where, when and what they work on. By grade 10, two thirds of their time becomes self directed and one third of their time is scheduled. To translate, for a student with 8 classes, each class is scheduled for one hour a week and that’s it. For the other 17 hours a week students align their passions with the learning outcomes and decide how to demonstrate their learning. They choose to work in open spaces called great halls where teachers are available to support learning. This flexibility also allows students to work from home, work part time jobs, participate in day time commitments for sports and activities, take time to travel, or choose to work ahead. In fact, many of our grade 8 students, choose to complete math 8 and 9 in one year by working ahead.

Beyond the flexibility described, the magic emerges in so many ways:

Collaboration: Our teachers do not use the staff room. They could if they wanted to but their normal workspace lends itself to creativity, collaboration and friendship. Instead of using offices, one big open space called the teacher prep area allows teachers of all disciplines to sit side by side. For example, it’s not uncommon to have teachers from Drama, English, Math and Science all within ten feet of each other. Since teachers also have self directed schedules, they are only scheduled in traditional classrooms for 7 hours / week (grade 10-12). During the other 14 hours of scheduled time, they teach with other teachers in great hall spaces helping students of all grades. The meetings I was originally looking for do not need to exist as learning happens naturally as teachers continually collaborate, share ideas, and encourage each other to try new things. Our teachers are learners too.

Events: In some schools, it’s difficult to coordinate school wide events. Teachers worry about scheduling, missed class time, set up and take down, etc. With our flexible schedule, we don’t instruct students or teachers to attend. Instead, when a cool event is happening such as the Haiku death match or Annual Egg drop we advertise in our daily announcements and invite anyone to attend. (Imagine the activity board at an all inclusive resort). The magic happens and hundreds of students and teachers show up on their own and learn together.

Inquiry: Our school encourages students to discover and follow their passions. In grade 8 our teachers literally throw away the curriculum for one month and hand over all control inviting students to develop their own question of inquiry. They guide them through the inquiry process facilitating their learning. One month later magic happens: grade 8’s showcase what they have accomplished – mastering the violin, developing online video games, designing clothing, recording their own records, creating apps for smart phones etc. And long after the assessment is over most of them continue to explore their topics of interest.IMG_0410

Working smarter not harder: Once our students link learning with their passions, they guide their learning process. Soon they figure out ways that one project can meet the learning outcomes of a variety of courses. It is not uncommon for students to find cross curricular connections where one project can meet the outcomes for 4 courses. For example, a grade 12 student recently explored her love for chocolate while earning credit for social justice (fair trade), foods (making chocolate), English (essay) and marketing (marketing plan).

Real life, Real learning: our students have the flexility in their day to participate in real life projects, partnering with our local seniors home, volunteering in the community, helping the homeless reconnect with family, creating campaigns such as ‘Make BC Smile’ and most recently – interviewing for the new SD42 Superintendent.

Test Centre: We believe testing should take place after learning has occurred, rather than on a set date and time determined by the teacher. When a student is ready to take a test, they have a conversation with their teacher to discuss their learning. If both parties feel the student is ready, they issue a test slip. The student then decides when to go to the test centre to write. Have a dance recital Tuesday night and won’t have time to review? No problem – choose the date that is best instead.

Calm, safe environment: Our kids are not stressed compared to other schools. The flexible model and cross grade learning eliminates conflict and cliques. Our school board called mid-year to find out why we were not forwarding suspension letters. The answer was simple – because we had not had any. Our teachers have time to collaborate, plan great fieldtrips, think outside the box and be creative. The school culture celebrates learning and innovation and students and teachers are safe to take risks. When someone has a new idea, the answer is often ‘Why not?’. Together we try new things, learn together and have fun doing so. It’s hard to find a student or staff member that does not LOVE our school.

Like the child who dares to try his first roller coaster, I have dared to see education re-imagined. For me, the ride is about to end, as I will be working at a new school next year. From a still frame shot, all will be the same when the coaster stops, yet, like the first time rider, I am not the same as I have leaned into fear, let go of control, and lived the experience. As I step away I will do so with a smile wide, knowing the secret of what education in the future may look like if we dare to disrupt the status quo.  Although I wish the it had been longer, I am glad I had the chance to take the ride and discover the magic of self directed learning: the magic of Thomas Haney.

Note: We invite the world to DisruptED 2014, hosted by Thomas Haney Secondary & the Canadian Coalition of Self Directed Learning. A conference recognizing the beauty that can occur when we dare to be different and shake up education.