Edutouring - evolving self-direction at Thomas Haney

Thomas Haney was the last school visit on our US/Canada whistle stop tour. It was also the last of the four Canadian schools we have visited that are part of the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning. Whilst the previous three schools represented a kind of progression along the continuum from self-paced to increasing self-paced and self-directed, Thomas Haney represented a bit of a detour, as a school who had revised the self-paced model to suit the needs of their learners.

Thomas Haney is a co-educational public school in Vancouver, Canada. It is 21 years old, having been founded in 1992 and designed and built to meet the demands of a self-directed school. This means it has a number of large open learning commons, referred to as the "great halls", each housing a different learning area. Around these are a number of more traditional classrooms. For many years I believe the school followed a similar model to that of Westmount, Mary Ward and Bishop Carroll, where by students checked in with Teacher Advisors but then spent their school days working in the space they chose, on the subject of their choice at a pace that suited. This was enabled by a series of Learning Guides that provided detailed instructions and resources. This however was changed in recent years, in response identified needs of the learners at Thomas Haney.

Enter Sean Nosek, the passionate Principal who has been leading the school for four years. Sean greeted us on arrival at Thomas Haney, and took us through to a meeting room to introduce us to the school and to share his powerful vision for learning at the school. Sean, who has been at the school for a number of years as an English Teacher and leader before stepping up as Principal, has a clear view of 21st Century Learning and can clearly and persuasively articulate how Thomas Haney has evolved to become a leading school in the province. They are the only school in the area with a climbing roll, with students travelling from around the province to attend the school. Sean spoke of the principles behind self-directed learning - teacher advisory, flexible scheduling, personalised programming, collaborative teaching environment, authentic assessment, continuous progress and an interactive learning environment. He stressed their desire to be self-directed rather than simply self-paced. He acknowledged that they did not want to be a correspondence school where students simply take the package and go (this had been something we identified as a potential issue at earlier school visits). He also stressed that he wanted them to enjoy class and form a relationship with each teacher, not just the teacher advisor.

So how did they achieve this?

Basically, (let me know if I get this wrong!) Thomas Haney has revised the original model and has now put in place a structure that facilitates a gradual move from structured to unstructured, from inflexible to flexible as the student progresses through the school years. The school time table consists of five blocks a day with the students meeting with their Teacher Advisor (TA) at the beginning and end of each day, on Monday the TA is a bit longer. Each TA group is vertical (Grade 8-12) with up to 22-23 students. Siblings are placed in the same TA and students stay in that TA throughout their time at Thomas Haney. In Grade 8 classes are fully scheduled, except for one single block, referred to as Y block. This gives the first years a taste of flexibility and gives the students time to prepare for future flexibility. In Grade 9 - eight blocks are unscheduled, turning over one third of the school schedule to students to make their own decisions. In Grade 10, 11, 12 - 2/3s of the schedule is turned over to student. One period of each subject and each elective are locked down each week. Students are expected to use their time to visit teachers. The hybrid model allows freedom as well as the time for building relationships with subject teachers. The aim is to deliver increasingly personalised learning - with the what, when, where, being increasingly controlled by the student.

There is some interdisciplinary learning, with some formal organisation by teachers and students definitely encouraged to construct links for gaining credit from a number of subjects through a single project. There is room in timetable for events to sprout - such as Haiku death match or poetry slam. 125 of the 1050 students even have agreements that allow them to work at home - but this is formally arranged and approved.

What are the pros?

This definitely sounded like the perfect blend, and it definitely offered, I believe, a great model that could be adopted by traditional schools that want to make the shift. You could see that this model offered students more hands-on support, and also provided subject teachers more opportunity to connect with their learners. They also seemed to be the least dependent (of the four schools) on Learning Guides and therefore did not feel like a correspondence school inside a school.

At this point I do have to acknowledge some of the great authentic learning we experienced, with lunch being catered by Grade 9 students, hats off to Sean and his team as it was nothing short of divine - stuffed chicken breasts and salad, followed by apple cobbler and divine homemade spiced apple ice cream. Delish!

And the cons?

There is no question, I loved Sean's passion and vision for learning at Thomas Haney and I do believe the redeveloped model was created to meet the needs of the learners in this community. The school is succeeding both academically and in terms of student numbers - both a reflection of strong leadership. The downside, I did suspect, is that in adding structure back into the mix, freedom and flexibility had been lost and somehow the students seemed a little less in charge of their learning, particularly compared to the schools we had visited previously. Also, in enhancing the role of the subject teacher, the Teacher Advisor seemed to fade a little into the background. The past three schools seemed to have a lot more structure around TAs and used these as a means for linking with home in a way that didn't seem as prevalent or as regular at Thomas Haney. But then again, you can't deny a school's responsibility to change to meet the needs of their learners, and from what we heard from students and staff alike, this change worked for them.

In summary, it was great to see yet another iteration of the Canadian self-directed school movement. Each school has provided inspiration and real insight into how we might deliver learning in a way that better meets the needs of our 21st century learners. Each school has impressed us and challenged us in different ways.

Now for the tough part - bring it all together and working out what should be added to the mix at Honsonville Point Secondary School!

At this point I also want to acknowledge Maurie Abraham our Principal, who worked hard to set this all up, this trip was MASSIVE, but so worth it. Thanks also to our BOT who supported our edutouring.

Over the next week or so I will be sharing further reflections from the trip, snapshots from Ignition 13 and the BYOD conference to be held at Albany Secondary High School. In May I head off with TTS on the Apple schools tour, so standby for a bit of Edutouring 2.0.


  1. I've really enjoyed reading your impressions of the self-directed learning schools especially the opportunity to reflect on how they've evolved since I was there in 2008. Have as safe trip back.

    1. Thanks Michal. Would love to go back in a few years as I get the sense they are all evolving!


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