Edutouring - Reflecting on lessons learned from Canada's Self-Directed Schools

It is interesting to reflect on what has stuck with you a week or so after traveling. There was definitely a huge amount to learn from the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning, with each school visited providing a slightly different iteration of the same vision for learning.

So what did I learn?

1) Teacher Advisors are the key
In each of the schools Teacher Advisors or TA, to a greater or lesser extent, played a central role in the lives of students, providing a single person that the student connected with throughout their high school career. In the schools where the TA worked best they had regular contact time with students - in Mary Ward students checked in with their TA three times a day and sat down for a formal learning progress interview once every two weeks. This meeting was recorded on a school SMS and sent home to parents as a pre-formatted email. At Bishop Carrol the relationship was similarly formal, but with students determining how regularly they met one to one with their TA, enabling students who were falling behind with more regular contact and support. The TA/student relationship was warm, close but definitely a learning relationship. A powerful way to ensure students received support, encouragement and guidance - particularly important when students are selfdirecting and may not connect with subject teachers on such a regular basis.

2) The more flexi-time the student has, the better
Whilst it was tempting to default to (and feel more comfortable with) a more hybrid structured/self-directed model, I still believe the more flexi or self-directed time students had, the more rewards there were for the learner in the long run. There is no denying that many students struggled to adapt to having the freedom to manage their own learning, but you could see that by Grade 12 (Year 13) the students that worked their way through several years of self-directed learning were seriously switched on, and as John Wright would say, they demonstrated a real sense of agency - they could manage their learning, and time and time again we heard how these students flourished beyond high school. The schools that ran on, pretty much, all flexi-time (Mary Ward and Bishop Carroll) also were they schools that had students making the most of this flexibility, particularly those that sporting or creative commitments. So often we see students fall behind for these very reasons, which is actually what their education should be about, not something they have to pursue on top of their regular timetables. Students could prioritise their passions and have more or less time and more or less focus on topics as needed.

3) Flexibility and freedom requires structure and systems to work well
There is every chance that giving massive amounts of freedom to teenagers could result in chaos. It was clear that if you want to ensure academic rigour you need to ensure that there are clear boundaries, clear expectations and a whole lot of check points and support to help keep students on track. At Mary Ward this was achieved by a combination of morning TA time where students received TA mail (personalised messages notifying students of upcoming assessments, grades etc), TA check in before lunch and end of day. Students had large diary planners to plan their time which were regularly checked by TAs and they also had regular sit down TA interviews. This system ensured no students fell behind (or if they did they were identified and supported) and that students were encouraged to create their own structure within the flexi-time.

4) Inquiry plus a kick-arse Learning Management System (LMS) are the key to doing it our way
One element of the whole self-directed learning model that we all struggled with (as did the Canadian Schools who were working to remedy this) was that at present they were paper heavy (students often picked up paper Learning Guides for each unit) and courses were for the most part strictly sequential and offered little in the way of differentiation or variation of teaching and learning styles. Having a powerful LMS that is used from day one would (or at least could) provide a means of overcoming these shortcomings. I personally have a vision for an integrated LMS made up of a Moodle, Google Apps and My Portfolio mash-up as the base for all learners (plus any tools or platforms that meet the needs of teachers and learners). If we were also to frame subjects/modules/units with an inquiry or big questions and deliver any material online (as well as providing time for face to face and teacher time) surely we can deliver rich multi-modal Learning Guides (visual/oral/written) and hopefully provide more opportunities for differentiated pathways in more manageable ways.

5) We need our Student Management Systems (SMSs) updated - I'm looking at you Kamar!
Flexible learning paths means we need to be able to report on student learning in flexible ways.  From what I know of  Kamar (correct me if I am wrong) itself to having a class of students all doing the same standards or assessments. I suspect genuine flexible learning paths may require this mold to be broken. Could it cope with a whole school of Individualised Education Programmes (IEPs) and could we sit down with a learner each fortnight, feed back on their progress and email it home at a click of the button?? Because I think we might need to be able to do that. I suspect the SMS will need to provide the structural backbone for a more flexible model of teaching and learning.

6) You don't need a Modern Learning Environment to deliver 21st century learning
The schools we saw that were built for purpose, i.e. the schools that has open learning commons and break out rooms, definitely made it easier to manage more flexible self-directed learning and seemed to discourage too much teaching from the front and for this reason I am thankful about delivering this model in our school (Hobsonville Point Secondary School). However I also want to stress a really big lesson learned from Westmount - you do not need a flash Modern Learning Environment to make this happen in your school. Westmount provided an excellent example of a very 'old school' school delivering a powerful model of self-directed learning. These models rely on what school leaders and teachers truly believe students are capable of doing and teachers being brave enough to get out of the out of the way and let students learn on their own terms. You can teach less and have students learn more.

Finally, I want to know more about the High School Flexibility Enhancement Project
Okay this isn't really a lesson learned, but we did hear about this project in Alberta and it does sound sort of like what we want to achieve and seems to build on lessons the whole province has learned from the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning. Thanks to John Wright for sharing this video.


  1. For what its worth Kamar can be set up to use multiple markbooks:
    • Subject Markbooks
    • Year Level Markbooks
    • A Tutor Class Markbook
    • An Individual Teacher's Markbook
    • An Individual Student's Markbook
    so its quite flexible

  2. Def Kamar is flexible Claire - you can load as many assessments as you want against every student in any class and just 'double tick' the ones each student is being assessed or entered in.
    In our junior programmes we have a range of assessment tasks and criteria - the teachers just select the ones for their class.
    An example - in Yr 9 the students might be being assessed in creative writing - but rather than have generic marking rubrics (or schedules) we have a range - create a scene, decribe a character, alternative endings .....etc. There may be 4 or 5 different assessment tasks and therefore each student may have a different range of assessed grades.
    Hope that made sense.

    Thanks for the reflections...

  3. That could effectively work at senior level too! Assessment tasks that suit the student - imagine! I too have good memories of working with Kamar - especially in pastoral situations. Seriously think it's the viable option.

  4. Yep, we use the same system with seniors - not all students in classes doing the same standards. The power of choice!

  5. Have just googled the Alberta High School Flexibility Enhancement Project and read their report from 2011-2012. I'm impressed that their education dept is forward thinking enough to fund a project of this scale, especially as it seems the outcomes are not what were originally expected. But they had the courage to keep it going. Everything they talk about resonates with your summary Claire. I'll be fascinated to see what the recommendations are from the end of the project in June.

  6. I have been following your blog posts on these schools with real interest Claire - thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am deeply passionate abotu methods of developing student agency and I'm heartened to see your school pondering these issues. As you have intimated, those responsible for setting up new schools need to think outside the traditional box and challenge what a school should look like and how it should operate.

    While the self-directed schools you have visited are interesting I think (as you have recognised)they have some way to go to really be viewed as reflective of the needs of the 21st century learner. I especially don't like the learning guides, which while giving students flexibility in time, don't really give them control of their learning. How did these schools approach student collaboration? How would knowledge building approaches fit? (

    Have you visited Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti here in Christchurch? (

    1. Thanks Darren! Heading to Unlimited next month, can't wait. Cheers Claire


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