One of the pillars of the modernized curriculum in British Columbia is the role of reflection and self-assessment. For this element to take root in schools, it needs to become part of the ethos, the culture of the school. This change does not happen through discussion. For the school to consistently develop and foster reflective practitioners who are placing learning at the center of all that they do, the school as a system must model this way of being.
Systems, if left unchecked, take on a life of their own, often resulting in damage to the very area of society they were created to support. It does not take too many evenings watching the news to realize that an economic system in the west runs at the expense of people in other countries of the world. That an agricultural and forestry system based on monoculture, though very efficient, leads to overall degradation of the earth. The education system is not immune to this reality. A system based on the premise that all students born in the same 365 day period all need similar things at similar times regardless of their individuality is not a system designed for the very aspect of society it was created to serve.
Learning institutions in BC have been given the mandate to evaluate all aspects of their practice to improve learning for students in the province. Research acknowledges that the present education system does not prepare students for the rapidly changing world. Innovation still seems elusive in many learning environments. For improvements in education to take root, key elements of the present education system need to be reflected upon and assessed for their learning value. When school leaders lead their staff and community through a journey of systemic reflection and self-assessment, they begin the journey of system renewal and take a step closer to an educational system which supports development.
In the present push for educational innovation, there are very few systemic elements that have been left unquestioned. It is true that in the Graduate Learning Years, students still need to receive letter grades and percentages as they lead to a transcript that will allow them to follow their desired path for their future. There are required courses for all students to graduate with a provincial diploma. All students are expected to self-assess their Core Competency development. There are still curricular expectations, Big Ideas, Curricular Competency, and foundational Literacy and Numeracy skills.
These are not the systemic structures that are making educational innovation more difficult. Many schools which are on sustainable innovation journeys still meet the previously mentioned provincial expectations while planning for and implementing change in areas that other schools may still take for granted. For schools to consistently improve learning for students, self-assessment and reflection need to lead to changes in any areas which efficiency or tradition take priority over learning.
Some common structures based on efficiency rather than learning are: Block Scheduling, Semesters, Teachers Primary Role as a Subject Expert, September to June school calendar, Instructional Minutes, and Complete Subject Area Separation. It is exciting to be part of education in BC because at the time of this writing there are schools all over the province who are assessing the value of each of these structures, adjusting them to fit their context, and promote deeper learning.
For a school on Vancouver Island, tweaking the September to June calendar improved student and teacher efficacy. It means starting the year before the long weekend in September to allow for an extended fall break in November. Such small changes allow for personal and emotional renewal for staff and students.
For a school in the north, it means getting rid of semesters and designing the schedule based on a group of students, course offerings and what is best for families in their communities. Next year this means dividing the year into three sections of varying lengths. In section one, students are taking the equivalent of three courses, for longer periods of time each day. This change allows teachers to collaborate more and incorporate interdisciplinary projects while also providing time for daily advisory and support for all students. Section two is shorter in duration and has students taking the equivalent of two courses; this gives teachers and students the opportunity to be involved in projects that deepen their learning and understanding while also supporting their community.
Part of the anticipated plans in this middle session has students participating in an Outdoor Education/English & Arts session, or an Entrepreneurship/English & Arts session. The third section of the year is similar to the first; students will engage in learning using three extended blocks each day with the additional support of a daily advisory. Interdisciplinary planning to show accountability for provincial Big Ideas and Competency development is an essential component of this innovative plan. Instructional minutes, though no longer as clearly defined in the Graduate Learning Years program are similar for all subject areas throughout the ten-month learning cycle.
In each of these examples teachers and administrators work as a team, through a process of reflection and self-assessment, to adjust the systemic norms of education to meet the needs of students. This is not an easy process; it will take time. Mistakes will happen.
Waiting for a perfect plan is a recipe for inaction and an excuse to avoid acting on the need for innovation. Through this uncomfortable time, it is essential that most stakeholders understand and are excited about the common vision for student learning. Without a collective enthusiasm, essential vision-oriented plans are destined to fail, making further innovation even more difficult.
Looking to move forward with systemic change at your school, use this decision-making process as a team. As you self and group assess current practice and imagine new and exciting ways to meet the needs of students, walk through each system that keeps your school running using these questions as your filter.
First and foremost, we need to ask:
Is what we are doing or planning potentially harmful to students?
Once we have established that harm is not being done to students, we can begin to examine current practices and possible innovations through this list of reflective questions:
Does this idea/process match my school mission/vision?
Is it educationally sound?
Is it developmentally appropriate?
Is it inclusive?
Does it leave room for student choice/input?
Does it prioritize people over content or systems?
Does it choose development over management?
Does it bring students closer to Christ?
Does it promote faith formation in children?
If every system in our school is filtered through this self-assessment and reflection process, school leaders and staff can move forward with confidence. The confidence that comes from knowing that the decisions they are making and the actions they are taking align with what is best for students intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual development.
Darren Spyksma (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SCSBC Director of Learning