Edutouring - learning and sharing at Bishop Carroll

We arrived in Calgary to -1 weather, spending our first evening taking a jaunt though the -5 degree snow laden streets. Bishop Carroll is the third of four "self-directed" schools and the second Catholic school we are visiting on our US-Canada edutour.

Calgary is cold, the people are not.

Like the two self-directed schools before them, Bishop Carroll welcomed us with open arms and after a brief unfortunate incident (we were introduced as Australians over the loud-speaker.... ;) we spent a fabulous day learning and sharing with the Principal Daniel Danis and his students.

The school has been self-directed for 40 years in a building created for purpose in 1971. They are now in the third year of a one to one laptop programme, running a lease to own programme and like the other Canadian schools we have visited they used D2L (Desire to Learn) as the LMS (Learning Management System). Bishop Carroll is considered a "magnet" school, taking students from all over Calgary. Approximately 20% students are high level sportspeople (the flexibility well suited to students travelling throughout the year), there are a lot of music students, approximately 20% of students with identified learning needs and 25% students who had English as a second language. Flexibility makes it appealing to students involved outside of school. One of the central philosophies of the school was that it was "a school for everyone" guided by the text of the same name by by J Lloyd Trump.

As this is a senior school, taking only Grade 10-12 (our Year 11-13) and the only self-directed school in the province, it is important that all students complete 2-3 weeks orientation at beginning of year, during this time students are introduced to the self-directed timetable structure and given strategies to cope with it. Being the school with the longest history of self-directed learning that we have visited so far meant that it also seemed to be the school where it felt the most innate. Where Westmount and Mary Ward provided students with A4 sized diaries to manage their time, the students of Mary Ward seemed to find their own way, with many relying on the schedule on D2L or using their smart phone or laptop calendar to keep a schedule. In many ways the school operated and felt like a mini university with students being free to work where they pleased (I imagine the inclement weather also helped keep students in the building!), students arrived each morning, checking in with their Teacher Advisor and collecting their student ID lanyard which they wore thought the day day before returning at the end of day to their advisor to check out and return their ID. Students for the most part, worked independently through Learning Guides that they either collected from Learning Area resource centres or accessed online (once again these were pretty inflexible and sequential, with little differentiation across units but some within). They tested their learning at the end of each unit and moved on to the next. When they need to be assessed they booked in for tests or examination at the Examination Centre. A variety of tests for each unit were available to minimise the chance of sharing and cheating. Unlike Westmount and Mary Ward, Bishop Carroll students had to compete a number of end of year exams - Science, Maths, English and History exams (I think) in Grades 3, 9, 12. These are province wide, assessment is made up of 50% exam and 50% internal assessment. One frustration for these learners was that they did have to wait to sit the end of school year exam.

So what were the pros?

The sheer fact that this has been operating for 40+ years certainly proves the long term success of the self-directed movement - this ain't no pedagogical fad! I have to admit, the atmosphere of the school was pretty magic, the students somehow coming across as both more laid back, yet more switched on to learning than any school we have visited so far. Daniel, the Principal mentioned that engagement and ownership of school was better than any other school he has been in, I couldn't help but agree with him. These students owned their learning, they could take advantage of the flexibility to engage in what we would regard as extra-curricular activities during the day, they called the shots as to where and when they learned. The more physical, practical subjects such as physical education, technology and performing arts could be focused on for hours at a time if needed. We sat in on a 10 minute student written and directed play that was testament to the benefits of this - it was stunning. The drama teacher, Pat Doyle (who had been there so long he had a theatre named after him) was equally stunning - energetic, passionate and with a twinkle in his eye. You did wonder if this flexibility enabled the educators to flourish as much as the students.

And the cons?

The Principal would have been the first to acknowledge that of course there was areas of weakness and as always, much they could improve. In fact, at this point I want to acknowledge how much we appreciated and enjoyed the fact that Daniel was so eager to learn from us, this visit more than any other felt like a genuinely two way discussion, with the acknowledgment that New Zealand is actually leading the way in many areas, for one, our curriculum never fails to be a source of national pride.

In terms of areas of improvement, he suggested that students could have benefitted from some more concrete deadlines, particularly as they did encounter these at tertiary level. He also hoped that next year all teachers would have to have two learning guides - one that is a structured and detailed full teaching and learning guide and another that is more like a frame that allows the student to co-construct the content with the teacher (I LOVE this idea). There was also a need for more cross-curricular links - more of learning areas getting together and create a course that is interdisciplinary. Also like the schools before there was still an element of correspondence school learning, albeit with more opportunity for face to face seminars and learning when needed. The Principal also suggested that he would suggest having more structured classes for Science and Maths, this was the first school to really discuss concept of different pedagogy needed for different disciplines - Science and Maths seemed to struggle a little with such flexibility. I thought this was great to hear, I think one issue we all need to reflect on when considering new models is that any one model does not fit all - neither students nor disciplines.

It will be interesting to develop a model that is actually flexible enough to allow for inflexibility where it is needed.

Some other interesting points.

Student notices come around each morning to show students what is on.
Some seminars are compulsory some are not.
English has choices of texts throughout.
They have a "prime time" 12.45-3.10 where students aren't supposed to move around.
English has physical sign up for English and others are online.
This is a true high trust model - some grade 12 students did take off during the day (they are teenagers after all) but they do fall behind and seem get back on track (this according to our lovely student guide).
Each teacher has a personal office.
There is an interesting flexibility project happening in Alberta - http://ideas.education.alberta.ca/hsc/current-projects/flexibility-enhancement-pilot/ (I plan to investigate this more!).

Recommended Reading

A School for Everyone by J Lloyd Trump
The Self-Directed Learning Handbook by Maurice Gibbons

In conclusion, this was another awesome school visit. The opportunity to share was as enjoyable as the opportunity to learn. This school proved the long term benefits of both flexibility and high trust. The students were pretty spectacular - somehow pulling off relaxed, learned and mature beyond their years.

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