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.



Ideas from Educon

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the Educon 2.6 Conference in Philadelphia.  My intention was to blog about  take away ideas within a couple days of the conference.   I’m not quite sure what happened but somehow I took a month hiatus  from this blog.  I have spent more time writing at http://www.BeyondHELLO.org but havcn’t found the time to share education ideas here.  And now I feel like a kid with 30 excuses about why I haven’t done my homework…  Regardless, the conference was outstanding and the ideas are worth sharing. So – without any further delay, here are the top 5 things I took away from Educon.

1. You need to visit Philadelphia and the Science Leadership Academy.  This amazing school teaches all of their curriculum through project based learning.  Regardless of the subject, students are assessed based on their five pillars: Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation and Reflection.   The school has partnered up with the community to create authentic learning opportunities.  For example, each week, the students visit the Franklin Institute as part of their science curriculum.   The school is buzzing with innovative ideas, creativity and students that are proud of their school and thriving in all regards.  If you have the change to get to Educon next year I would highly recommend it.

2. Encienda / PechaKucha / Ignite – call it what you wish – I LOVE it.   I had the opportunity to present in Philadelphia for five minutes using 20 slides.  As a presenter, I did not have control over the slide transitions.  I had 5 minutes, with 20 slides which advanced automatically every 15 seconds.  (PechaKucha is 20 slides at 20 seconds each).    As a presenter, this was intimidating!  Not only did i need to know my stuff, I needed to have a polished presentation where I stayed on track, and said what really mattered while I had the chance.  I found this presentation way more difficult to prepare for than an hour long presentation.  However – I loved it!  I was challenged, I had to be creative, and I had to simplify my presentation to maximize impact in a short period of time.    As an audience member I LOVED watching all the other presentations.  Every five minutes the topic would change which kept the entire audience engaged.  This would be a great strategy to use with students or at staff meetings or district meetings.

3. Story-Sharing Session:  At this workshop, the presenters from IZone (Office of Innovation, New York City Department of Education) taped powerful words  to a whiteboard.  They then took two minutes to tell a personal story about education themed around one of the powerful words.  The audience was invited to listen and also think of their own personal stories about innovation in schools.  If the presentation prompted you to think of your own story, you had the chance to present next.  You could either draw a line from the first powerful word to your chosen word, or if your word was not listed, you could write it one the white board and draw a line.  This teaching strategy encouraged the audience to listen but also required each person to find the connections and share with one another.  We quickly discovered how much our stories connected and how easily we could relate.  This would be a simple way for students  or staff to identify connections between them.

4. Design Thinking.  This was my favourite presentation at the conference.  Teachers from Mount Vernon School in Atlanta walked us through a  ‘Design Thinking’ exercise so we could experience the benefit of seeing change happen, while understanding the value of empathy in problem solving.  For example, their Socials Teacher spoke about his Alexander the Great Lesson, where students needed to get to know Alex as a person before they could figure out what advise they would give to him.  The science teacher had students watch a video of a woman hearing for the first time before asking the class to work together to create an improved cochlear implant.   In our workshop we were paired up and given the task of re-designing airplanes to improve the middle seat experience.   To teach this concept, we were asked to spend 8 minutes with our partner (2 sessions at 4 min each) where we listened to our partner explain their experience flying in the middle seat.  Then, based on the emotion we had heard, we were asked to go deeper for 6 minutes (2 sessions at 3 minutes each) to learn more about our partner.  My partner explained that she needed to move. She didn’t like feeling trapped.  When we went deeper I learned that she loves the outdoors, adventure sports and travel.  I was able to re-frame the problem and create a problem statement:  “Meg, a passionate community educator, needs a way to integrate adventure, movement and space into her middle seat flight because she is passionate about the outdoors and loves new experiences.”  I was then able to draw a protype for an airplane seat that resembled an IMAX experience with a moving chair and simulation video.    I loved this activity because the design I developed was rooted in empathy for someone else’s needs.  If I had started with my own needs, I would have re-designed the seat so I could spend more time talking to strangers – something completely different than what my new friend Meg was looking for.

5. Maker Movement.  I didn’t have the chance to attend the Maker Movement breakout but it seems to be getting more and more attention.  The idea is simply to create Maker Stations where students can use random materials to tinker, hack and create during the day to demonstrate their learning.  Two of our fabulous Thomas Haney teachers are modelling this for our staff by hosting a school wide ‘Maker Faire’ tomorrow afternoon.  Students will meet in one central area and gather materials and then return to subject specific learning spaces to demonstrate their learning.  (Value Village was more than happy to donate their random parts and pieces for our student creations)

After returning home from Educon, I am feeling inspired and energized to try these new ideas. I believe this is an exciting time in education.  We are learning more and more about teaching and learning and finding innovative ways to provide rich experiences for our students.  Teachers are more valuable than ever as they work one on one with students to help them explore their passions and discover what they love to learn about.  Educon was an amazing conference, not just because of the school itself, but also because it brought together innovative educators from across North America.   I’m looking forward to DisruptED Vancouver, this coming October as we too hope to offer a fabulous education conference, where we celebrate innovation, creativity and ideas that inspire.    Registration is now open with early bird rates until June 15th. http://www.eventbrite.ca/e/disrupted-vancouver-2014-tickets-4458812428?aff=eivtefrnd

Two Exciting Education Events for 2014

Happy New Year!  There’s something about January that I love.  Whether or not we keep our resolutions, the simple act of stopping to reflect on the year behind us and look at the new year with optimism gives us a sense of renewal and hope.  It also gives us direction for where we are headed.  “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”  ― Paulo CoelhoThe Alchemist

This coming year I am really looking forward to two exciting education events!  I am hopeful that you will join us in one or both!

1)  The first of the two events, is Make BC Smile – an initiative that students in my leadership class created.  Make BC Smile will take place in BC from Monday May 26th – Friday May 30th.  The premise is simple – have students engage in projects that spread kindness and help make people in BC stop and smile.  What I love about this project is how it came to be.  In October, I showed my leadership class a video I had found on Twitter, created by Massoud Adibpour.  He is a university student in Washington DC who decided to make it his mission to make DC smile.  He got some friends together and began the ‘Honk if You Love Someone Campaign‘.   My intention was simplistic.  I thought I would show the video to my students, and then we would repeat the idea by creating positive signs to hold on Lougheed Highway in Maple Ridge for one morning.  What happened next was pretty cool.  Local media learned of our project because passerby’s phoned the media and asked them to cover it.  The Province newspaper wrote ‘Happy Haney students spread the love with streetside rally‘. The secretaries at our school fielded multiple calls from drivers who wanted to thank the students for making their day.  One lady broke down in tears in the Starbucks line up sharing the impact the simple messages had that particular day.   As an educator, I LOVE the impact this day had on our students.  A couple of days later, one of my students, Caroline, approached me and asked if I had a plan for our leadership class the following week.  I asked why.  She told me she needed 20 minutes of the class.  She had taken it upon herself to contact Massoud Adibpour in Washington DC to let him know that we had repeated his project and she had made arrangements for him to join us via Skype to share ideas for positive projects in our communities!   On the Monday, during the Skype conversation, two other leadership students, Jenna & Miranda, thought of a new idea.  As members of the Maple Ridge District Student Advisory Council, they were in search of a motivational speaker for May for a grade 6-7 leadership conference.  What if Massoud & his girlfriend Bonnie could be the speakers? What if the leadership conference could include a district wide ‘Honk if you Love Someone’ campaign with grade 6-12 students lining the streets from East to West through Pitt Meadows & Maple Ridge?  As grade 12 students at Thomas Haney (a self directed school), they know how to negotiate, take initiative, and advocate for what they want.  So what did they do?  They did their research, looked up flights, contacted Massoud & Bonnie and convinced them not only to volunteer their time to come to Vancouver, but also to extend their stay for a week!  They then set up a meeting with our superintendent’s office to confirm funding.  This ALL happened before they shared the idea with me.  I told them I loved it – I just had one question…. where would they stay?   They smiled and said “at your house!”.  (Which our family is excited about)  I love how they have created this all on their own!  Their goal is to share their enthusiasm with others across the province.  For the week of May 26-30th the Maple Ridge – Pitt Meadows School District will work together spreading random acts of kindness throughout the community in an effort to ‘Make BC Smile’.  We would LOVE to have schools around the province join us.  If you would like to participate, please comment below and our students will be in touch and showcase your initiative on http://www.makebcsmile.com.  I know it will be an exciting week.  I’m smiling already!

2) The second event I’m looking forward to is a bit of a dream come true.  For those of you that know me well, you know I LOVE education and I LOVE planning events.  Well, this year, when a team of educators from our school travelled to Edmonton for the annual CCSDL Conference (Canadian Coalition of Self Directed Learning), we found out that the city scheduled to host the conference next year had to back out.  My principal Sean Nosek and I had already been speaking about planning an exciting pro-d event in Vancouver, so we decided to take the plunge and offer up our school as the next host school for this national teaching conference.  However, in talking with our teachers, we realized we have all reached a place where our expectations for Pro-D are changing.  We don’t want to be ‘talked-to’ – we want to participate.  We want to leave the conference inspired, and full of new ideas. We realized we crave something different – something new – something that shakes up education.  We want to plan a conference that we would like to attend… a conference that challenges us to be better educators and inspires us to try new ideas.  A conference that dares to disrupt education.

After a couple months of preliminary planning our ideas are starting to take shape.  Here’s what I can tell you so far….  DisruptED Vancouver will take place over three days, October 23 – 25th 2014.  The Thursday will take place at Thomas Haney Secondary and the Friday / Saturday will take place at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Unknown-1 copy 2

So what is DisruptED?  Our ideas are unfolding but here’s a glimpse into what we hope to create….

DisruptED is different.  It is not for those who want the future to look the same as today.  It is not for those who doubt our education system and what it can become.  DisruptED is for those who believe in the future of education and believe that we have a responsibility to create the best system we possibly can. It’s for those who want every student to have an education that is rich and meaningful.  It’s for those who are willing to challenge assumptions that hold us back and take bold steps to move education forward.

DisruptED promises to be a powerful 3 day conference in Vancouver, BC where great minds in education will gather together to share ideas that are innovative, promising, creative, hopeful and inspiring. DisruptED invites the rogues, the rule breakers, the ones interested in pushing the limits to step forward.   We will provide an opportunity for individuals and groups to come together, to share stories and ideas, united in our belief that beautiful things can happen when we disrupt the status quo.

And we could not promote this idea without living it.  DisruptED will NOT be a status quo conference.  Expect to participate.  Expect to create.  Expect to learn. Expect to teach.  Expect to think.  Expect to laugh.  Expect to experience the beauty of Vancouver as you join in walking conversations on Vancouver’s seawall, engage in rich dialogue in one of the city’s casual cafes, or use what you’ve learned to compete in the DisruptED Vancouver Amazing Race.  Expect to leave motivated, inspired, connected and ready to shake up education.

It’s time to DisruptED. 

I hope that you will consider joining us!  Our call for presenters will open this spring and our website will be announced later this month.   If you would like to join our mailing list please comment below.  For more information you can also contact us via email at Sean_Nosek@sd42.ca or Kristi_Blakeway@sd42.ca

As I look ahead to 2014, I do so with excitement and gratitude.  I cannot wait to join with students to Make BC Smile and connect with educators to DisruptED!