Edutouring - the journey from traditional to self-paced and beyond atWestmount

Canada greeted us with most unfriendly weather, zero degrees and snow on the ground. This however could not have been further from the warmth and generosity we were greeted with on arrival at Wesmount.

Westmount is the first of four Canadian schools that we are visiting, all of whom are part of the Canadian Coalition of Self-directed Schools. These schools range from Catholic to secular, old to new, high decile to low decile, large to relatively small, all however are defined by their desire to deliver self-paced and increasingly self-directed learning programmes for students. This means students, by and large, are free to design each school day, choosing where and when they complete their school work through a system of daily or weekly planning under the watchful eye of a learning advisor and then work through units of work at their own pace in the space that best suits them. Having seen two of the four we are visiting, I suspect each school sits in a slightly different place on the continuum from more structured, self-paced learning to genuinely co-constructed student developed and self-directed learning. Westmount being a long established traditional co-ed public school probably sits closer to the self-paced end of that continuum, and because of this actually offered an excellent example of how any traditional school in very traditional spaces should not use this as an excuse to not develop 21st century learning models that challenge students to genuinely lead their own learning. Westmount was also fabulous in the way they clearly demonstrated what they were doing was a long and tough journey. They had come a long way from anything I have seen in NZ, yet they were nowhere near content to settle on where they had got to, with teachers actively seeking out ways to develop the model from a self-paced model to a truly self-directed one.

So what did we see there?

Due to the unseasonably unreasonable weather, we were a little late to arrive, meaning we missed experiencing the day in its entirety, this coupled with the fact that it was the day of the state wide literacy test, meant Juniors were locked down for the morning and some seniors had chosen to work from the warmth of their own homes. Still, on reflection, we saw and learned a huge amount.

On arrival, we were greeted at the door by the passionate and charming Principal, Rick Kunc. You could see immediately that his relaxed, open and honest nature had gone a long way in establishing an open, friendly and genuinely reflective team of teachers who were willing to admit shortcomings, share practice and take positive risks to ensure their model was forever evolving and developing in a way that met their learner's needs. Rick and one of his senior leaders, Greg, welcomed us in and gave us a brief introduction to what the school was trying to achieve and some of the successes they had enjoyed so far.

Basically (and apologies if I get this wrong Westmount!) how the school works is by offering what looks like a normal weekly timetable, with teachers allocated to each class, however teachers did not necessarily lead the learning (unless a skill or concept needed to be directly taught), instead students picked up a learning guide for a unit that they worked through at their own pace, meaning they could "fast track" their learning if they wanted to, or could take longer if needed. This meant they could also work pretty much independently if they preferred, or could work more closely with peers or teachers as needed as well. In addition to this, students were free to sign out of their classrooms to work where they thought best met their needs, so if they they needed to work on something in another area, they could do so. Teachers continued to maintain a level of control in that they were could veto student requests to move about if they were seen to be falling behind or taking advantage of their relative freedom.

Students who then took us on a tour gave us insight as to how they used the system, but also were candid enough to share how at least one of them really struggled with it, having to manage her time from Grade 9 she clearly took several years to refine the art of managing self-paced learning, learning the hard way by initially procrastinating and then cramming in a way most of would find familiar if reflecting on first year at Uni. That said, she had got to Grade 12 (equivalent to our Year 13) and she now had worked out how to use her time wisely and avoid panic setting in. I couldn't help but think how much better she was equipped for dealing with post school life, these students were definitely confident and in control by they time they graduated.

The way they managed the fast tracking did rely on pre-written Learning Guides, so if a student competed their first Learning Guide, they let their teacher know they were ready to be tested, they could then go to an Examination Centre in the library to complete the assessment, and if they succeeded they could then pick up their next Learning Guide. Each Learning Guide represented approximately a week's work (I think), students could complete a maximum of two a week (this helped to manage work flow of both teacher and student). This meant a student could potentially fast track some courses and free themselves up to complete other courses at a more leisurely pace. Students sat down with a Learning Advisor at least once a fortnight to go over grades, track progress and ensure students were doing what was best for them.

In the afternoon when we sat down with a team of of their teaching staff we got to hear their perspective. What was most heartening was their revelation as around how they struggled with, but ultimately enjoyed their transition from "sage of the stage" to facilitator and how they really did see that you could in fact "teach less" and see students "learn more" as a result. They also shared how they were trying to now move from simple sequential programmes that were paper heavy (this system involved a lot of paper!) to integrating blended approaches to begin offering multi-modal and more differentiated programmes. They were incredibly honest about the pros and cons and how they were learning and had a long way to go to become truly self-directed. One teacher shared his Media programme that had become a more buffet style course, where some units were compulsory, whilst others were their own choice selected from a wider range of units. Teachers were also working hard to give students choice about the means and modes by which they demonstrated learning. In this way I felt a huge connection with where NZ teachers are in their exploration of blended learning and differentiation.

There were some short comings, this approach does not suit all learners, it was at present paper heavy, and in parts felt like distance learning at school. But on the other hand they had achieved a spectacular shift away from what we presently do, giving the opportunity for students to become self-advocates in a way that will set them up for life. It was lovely to see such a passionate group of educators so happily sharing their journey.

If you are looking for models that demonstrate how a traditional school can genuinely shift the educational paradigm I would suggest Rick and host team offer a great place to start!


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