The Pilot – under revision

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Transitioning to a New Age of Learning

Learning comes naturally to human beings, especially to children, and the more we control it and parcel it out and measure it and push it, the harder it becomes. Give young people an interesting, encouraging, caring, and supportive environment, and they will learn, just as they will breathe and eat and grow taller. Mechanized schooling is not intrinsically interesting to most children. It is not encouraging, caring, or supportive, and so if we are truly dedicated to learning, we must provide another kind of environment. A learning community is explicitly a place where caring, responsive people nourish each other’s learning in the context of authentic relationships.” – Ron Miller

The above quote and the Ken Robinson video titled: Changing Education Paradigms provide background for the pilot program described here.


The basic premise of the following is that Self-Directed Education (SDE), as described by Peter Gray in his article titled Differences Between Self-Directed and Progressive Education, “will become the standard mode of education in the not-too-distant future”, because “we are biologically designed for it.” It is education that keeps us in touch with ourselves, and that is essential to our wellbeing. The adverse effects of traditional schooling that alienate children from themselves are coming to light and consequently accelerating the movement towards practices that are more humane and authentic. The pilot program outlined here is designed to provide public school students and teachers with a taste of self-directed learning. It begins conservatively, but it has the potential to remake public schools into community learning hubs that sustain the joy of learning and bring to the attention of students the world of infinite learning possibilities.

It is not for lack of trying to reform public education that it remains so mired in its age-segregated, assemble line approach to learning. The Ontario report titled Living and Learning, also named the Hall-Dennis Report after its principle authors, is an example of good reform efforts ending in failure. From the SDE perspective, this Report stands as perhaps the best one on education ever commissioned by a government. Respect for the learner is evident throughout as the following quote from a section titled Child-centred emphasis suggests.

“What confronts the learner will not be exclusively or mainly subject matter prearranged to meet requirements of adult logic, but opportunities to pursue with zest what he can appreciate for its interest and value in the vibrant world of today.”

The Ontario Government embraced the report and moved decisively on its recommendations. There was much optimism that we were entering the new age of learning, but within a few years people were giving up on the change efforts and returning to old practices. As the Alan King cartoon so aptly conveys, good ideas were being discredited by poor implementations.

If the Report had been properly handled, we would likely have a considerably more relevant education system in Ontario today. What we now find is people lamenting that we know what we want, we just don’t know how to get there.

The pilot program proposed here is designed with the idea that the implementation of it is as important as the program itself. To emphasize this, elements of the implementation strategy are presented first.

Fundamentals of the Implementation Strategy

To effectively manage change, the pilot program incorporates the following:

1. Change is by invitation. Imposed change is like coerced learning. Those involved tend to be less than fully committed to making a success of it. Students and teachers are therefore given the choice of participating in the pilot program or staying in the regular program.

The choice involved is seen as real choice – the choice of a different way to learn, and a choice that is as free of other influencing considerations (discussed later) as it can be. It is not to be confused with school choice, which is often only a choice of something perceived to be better, but which is not fundamentally different.

At one time it was thought that providing students with equal opportunity required that they all be given identical programs. This is changing. It is now more common to find that people believe each child is unique and that their learning environments need to reflect it. It is a view that sees the child as the customer of public education as opposed to a worker or the product of it. This change of thinking has set the stage for programs like the pilot that help to diversify the learning opportunities available for students. Public schools have been working to meet the needs of students on a more individual basis, but efforts remain too constrained by the antiquated structure of the schools.

2. The change begins small. The initial pilot program is intended for a group of approximately 25 students. Thomas Kuhn, who coined the term “paradigm shift” observed that only a small number of people initially grasp an idea, others take varying lengths of time to understands it, and some never get it. Denis Waitley said in his audiotape series of lectures titled Psychology of Winning that only 10% of people are proactive and willing to ride the wave of change. (This observation might say more about an effect of traditional schooling than it does about human nature.)

A small group of enthusiastic innovators is almost always the starting point for ideas that take hold. The pilot program is designed to empower students and educators who fit this description to take the lead in transitioning to the desired change.

3. The change is incremental. It’s a process, not an event. Daniel Pink in his book Drive said, “If we take people who have been highly controlled and plop them into environments of undiluted autonomy, they’ll struggle.” He said they need some supportive “scaffolding” to make the transition.

The pilot program retains much that is familiar to students and teachers. They remain in their home school, follow the same school rules, participate in extra-curricular activities as usual, and follow the Ministry curriculum. Students start with more control over how they learn, but much else remains the same.

4. Normal science is actively conducted. Problems are accepted as a normal part of the change process. Kuhn recognized that new paradigms come with their own sets of problems. He referred to the activity that goes into solving them as the “normal science” of a paradigm. The pilot program is to be viewed as a problem solving exercise. Previous reform efforts have not been devoid of “normal science”, but they have often been pursued according to political timeframes rather than scientific ones. As such, the time to do some real problem solving jhas been lacking. People undertaking a pilot program are encouraged to commit to running it for a minimum of five years in order to give those involved a chance to make significant headway with the normal science.

5. Schools-within-schools are essential. The pilots run in neighbourhood schools as “schools-within-schools”. This has several advantages that are seen as essential to most efficiently ushering in a new age of learning.

  • The program is visible to all students in the larger school. The “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” factor is minimized.
  • It makes the program equally accessible to all learners. Students do not need more savvy parents looking out for them, and they don’t need to be in the more privileged position of being able to get to schools beyond their community.
  • By providing students with choice in their local schools, their decision will not be influenced by having to commute, having to leave friends behind, or having to give up extra-curricular activities. As much as possible, it will be a decision about a different approach to learning.
  • Community is preserved. Schools are not ghettoized by some of the most capable people forsaking them. Students and parents stay to build quality in their local schools and community in their neighbourhoods.
  • An opt-in/opt-out advantage is supported by the program operating as a school-within-a-school. The program runs on a semester-by-semester basis. Students can opt to take it one semester then return to the regular program the next. The more easily students can opt-in, opt-out, and perhaps opt back in again, the more likely they are to explore the benefits of self-directed learning.

In addition to the benefits of using schools-within-schools as a way to create large-scale change, two other benefits are worth noting. The health of students is more easily cultivated if they remain in their community schools. Active and Safe Routes to School is one group advocating for active transportation to school. Environmental concerns are also addressed. The more students there are actively transporting themselves to school, the more school buses can be taken off the roads. The costs of busing are also reduced.

In his book The Quality School, William Glasser warned that running schools with competing philosophies under the same roof could result in each sabotaging the efforts of the other. The solution to this is in setting the right tone. The schools can be managed in ways where they benefit each other. More will be said on this in a future article.

6. Adding to the equity of the program, there are no admissions requirements, nor preconceived ideas of what makes a suitable candidate. There is only one criterion for students to be accepted. They have to be coming to school to learn. This is seen as a temporary measure to ensure that students who have lost interest in learning do not choose the program because they see it as a way to do less. A.S. Neill writing in Summerhill said that on average it can take students six weeks to recover from “lesson aversion”. Daniel Greenberg of the Sudbury Valley School told a story of brothers who took six months to recover from the adverse effects of their schooling. Within the time frames of the initial pilot program, there is not ample time to recover the most disengaged students, but given the success of North StarCompass, and the whole Liberated Learners movement, the pilot program promises to serve these students well once it is established and running year-round. The goal is to remove the criterion as soon as the program is running year-round.

7. The pilot eliminates stumbling blocks.

  • No new funding is needed. It only requires a reallocation of existing resources.
  • The pupil to teacher ratio of approximately 25:1 remains the same.
  • It meets Ministry of Education requirements.
  • It respects the position of teacher unions in that teachers choose to participate in the program. It also stands to enhance the public image of the teaching profession by demonstrating a proactive approach to reforming public education.

8. The pilot program is easily expandable. As demand for it grows, another staff member and some additional space can be reallocated. There will be problems associated with growth, but the effective management of a growing new idea is the crux of large-scale change. Problems need to be embraced with solutions pursued as the normal science of the SDE model.

9. The program sets the stage for the professional development required to make the transition to self-directed education. More will be said on this in a future article.

The Pilot Described

A little story helps to put the program into perspective. Some time ago, a board of newly elected school trustees held an all-day planning session to establish its goals for its four-year term ahead. The director of the board was the only staff person present. Wanting to be transparent, the trustees invited the public to observe proceedings and a small number of people from the community were also in attendance.

Soon after the lunch break, one of the re-elected trustees said, “If you want to see the students we fail, take a ride in a police cruiser on a Friday night.”

The director became defensive at this and quickly responded, “Oh yes, but if you want to see the students we recover, visit one of our alternate schools.”

Nobody at the time thought to challenge the director by saying, “But does it not follow that if we know how to recover these students, then we know how to prevent them from becoming at risk in the first place?” This question also has implications for the masses of students who have become bored, disengaged, and accepting of mediocre. We can prevent them too from needing to be recovered.

Similarities With Alternate Programs

There are two fundamental characteristics of alternate schools that are found in the pilot program. One is the elimination of formal scheduling. The second, greater adherence to the Principles of Learning, is made possible by eliminating the bells. Teachers become more able to apply the Principles.

The Elimination of Formal Scheduling

As soon as students are free of the bells the world of infinite possibilities opens to them. These possibilities not only include endless new ways to learn about the world and cultivate exciting learning communities; they also include opportunities to tap the power of age-mixing and to solve problems around the lengths of school days and years, and how homeschoolers can take advantage of public school resources and programs. A little imagining of the possibilities supports Larry Rosenstock’s view that formal scheduling, the practice of dividing the school day into regimented fixed chunks of time, is the single greatest impediment to educational innovation. Vicki Abeles reported these views of Rosenstock in her book Beyond Measure. She has produced a film by the same title. The trailer can be viewed here.

Ken Robinson reinforced the need to eliminate formal scheduling when talking to Abeles. He sad, “If you were running a business with a thousand employees, and every forty minutes everybody had to stop what they were doing, go to a different room entirely, and do something else that they weren’t so interested in, and then rinse and repeat six times a day, you’d be out of business in a week. You would get nothing done, and people would become disaffected.”

The Principles of Learning

The Principles of Learning were developed by Malcolm Knowles. He was troubled by the fact that many people who had dropped out of school and returned to it after realizing they needed an education, dropped out again. Despite being highly motivated to get an education, they couldn’t tolerate how it was being delivered. His study of this problem led to the Principles of Adult Learning, but it is easy to see that they apply to young learners as well as to adults, and so the age distinction has been dropped from the titled. These Principles are fundamental to the pilot program. The eliminating of formal scheduling allows for the creation of a different kind of learning environment that provides for teachers to develop with students the mutual respect that is the essence of the Principles.

The Principles are self-explanatory and are simply listed here for people’s consideration. They state that people learn best when:

  • they are treated with respect as self-directing persons
  • the learning situation is related to their past experiences
  • they have participated in the planning of the learning activity and set their goal
  • they are physically comfortable and can socialize with those in the learning group
  • they are with their peers, freely learning in groups
  • there are opportunities for a variety of learning activities
  • in a problem-centered situation where a question needs resolving or a task needs doing
  • they see progress, immediate results and some rewards for the time they put into learning
  • they evaluate themselves

Differences With Alternate Programs

 A Focus on the Skills of Independent Inquiry

Alternate programs are mostly about helping students to obtain the credits they need to graduate and move on with their lives. The primary curriculum is the prescribed Ministry courses. Students in the pilot program also work on Ministry courses. They are expected to obtain the same number of official course credits as they would in the regular program, but there is a significant change of emphasis. The primary curriculum of the pilot is the skills required for independent, lifelong learning; the skills commonly referred to as the 21st Century learning skills. Students use their mandated courses to develop these skills and acquire their credits as a by-product of applying the skills.

The following is a list of learning competencies that are among those emphasized in the pilot program, and the OPERI blog post titled Analytical Reading describes one way this emphasis is put into practice.

  • analytical reading
  • time management
  • teamwork and living as a community of learners
  • communications
  • identifying learning styles and how to design for them
  • self-discipline
  • discovering and utilizing the full range of available resources
  • self-evaluation
  • how to prepare independently for tests and exams

At the beginning of a semester, students are required to study the Ontario Ministry of Education documents outlining the objectives for their courses. With guidance from the teacher, they then develop and execute their learning plans taking into account every possible resource in and out of school, online and off, that can help them accomplish their learning goals.

The requirement of students to follow Ministry curriculum is a major piece of scaffolding that supports students’ transition from being dependent to independent learners. They are not required to create their own curriculum, but their attention is brought to how the Ministry’s curriculum writers create learning agendas out of learning goals. Course outlines, timelines, banks of assignments, tests and textbooks, used by regular students are made available to students enrolled in the pilot. Through this awareness building the students become better positioned to take on the task of creating their own unique curriculum in the future. Ways to help them transition to having greater control over what they learn, not just how they learn, are considered later.

The Cultivation of a Community of Learners

The pilot program works to create a learning community that nourishes students’ innate desire to learn and expands their view of, and access to, all that there is to learn. The celebration of diversity is a key to making this happen. The more diverse the learning environment, the more likely a student is to be curious and to enthusiastically pursue an interest.

Age-mixing is a tremendous asset when added to learning communities for young people. In the CHIP program, a prototype of the pilot, the students ranged from grades 10 to 12. Everyone, including the teachers, was considered to be both a teacher and a learner. A story from the CHIP program helps to create a vision of how diversity enhances learning.

Two grade twelve boys were enthusiastic about computer programming. They said the programming language provided by the school was obsolete, and they managed to obtain a license to a more recent program development language from a local business. They installed the program on a computer in the CHIP classroom and soon after it was common to see a cluster of other students surrounding them as they enthusiastically learned about programming. People are attracted to where things are interesting, and engaged learners are attracting. We see this outside of school when children of varying ages are free to play and learn together. The two boys increased the awareness of other students to the joy of programming and at least two other CHIP students went on to related careers.

There is more to this story. About six weeks into the program the two boys were talking with the teacher and made this confession. “When we signed up for CHIP,” one said, “we planned to have nothing to do with the little grade ten kids, but we don’t even notice their age now. They just seem like everyone else.” It is an indication that discrimination in its many forms may lessens with the diversification of the learning environment. The problem of bullying may be aggravated by the uniformity and conformity that is characteristic of traditional schools.

To help build the sense of understanding and caring for others that is central to building a community of learners, a husband and wife team of Myers-Briggs specialists was brought in early in the semester to conduct a full-day workshop with the students and teachers participating in the CHIP program. The morning was spent with everyone completing the Myers-Briggs personality types indicator to determine his or her type. The specialists then described the characteristics of the various types. The afternoon was spent looking at how different personalities relate to each other and the compatibility of the types to other types. Everyone was encouraged to rise to the challenge of learning to work constructively with everyone else, no matter how incompatible they might be. This challenge was kept alive throughout the semester with the idea that the better we get at working with all types, the more empowered we are to walk into any new situation and make the best of it. The Myers-Briggs workshop was worth doing, but there was a cost attached that the students themselves covered. People in the pilot program could achieve the same results using surveys and team building activities that are cost-free.

Diverse learning environments serve as launch pads to greater diversity. Students go out to experience the bigger world and return to enrich their communities with stories of their adventures. The elimination of scheduling in the pilot program greatly increases the opportunities for students to have out-of-school experiences that can be hours, days or weeks in length.

This comparison to alternate programs will have people realizing that the pilot programs are designed for secondary schools, but similar programs could just as easily be undertaken in elementary schools. The private schools for younger students that have been started by teachers who have become disenchanted with public education serve as examples. These schools could be operated as schools within their neighbourhood schools and have all of the advantages of schools-within-schools noted above.

The Basic Mechanics

The pilot begins with:

  • one classroom
  • the equivalent of one teacher. (In the CHIP program, two teachers were involved. One was on duty in the mornings, the other in the afternoons. They each worked in the regular program during the other part of the day.)
  • a group of approximately 25 students representing a cross-section of a secondary school student population
  • students:
    • enroll in the program for one semester and may choose to re-enroll
    • work on four ministry courses as they would in the regular program[18]
    • write the same final exams as students taking the same courses in the regular program
    • are required to follow all the same school rules and hours as other students
    • participate in the same extra-curricular activities as they would in the regular program

 Opportunities to Learn About SDE

The pilot program provides a learning environment for in-depth studies of:

  • the skills students need for independent, lifelong learning
  • how these skills might foster creativity and critical thinking
  • the role of teachers as facilitators in helping students to acquire these skills
  • how to effectively apply the Principles of Learning
  • how to cultivate learning communities and how they might help to mitigate bullying
  • how age-mixing unleashes a powerful resource
  • how the celebration of diversity in learning communities invites inclusion
  • how technology can support the self-directed learner
  • how schools-within-schools, where the schools have opposing philosophies, can be managed to benefit both
  • how students readjust to conventional schooling after being self-directed
  • how traditional school systems might systematically transition to a new paradigm with a minimum of disruption
  • and ultimately, how to properly provide for the wellbeing of students.

The CHIP program indicated that there is no risk to students who enrol in the pilot program. It tended to confirm that the students at risk are those who have no real opportunity to develop their creativity, critical thinking, and independent lifelong learning skills. It appears, from the CHIP experience, that even one semester of being free of the bells gives students a refreshed outlook on learning that serves them well when they return to formally scheduled programs.

In a talk given to Alberta educators, former school superintendent Peter Gamwell said, “While living in a world of inbetweenity, a time between times, it’s as though we are living our lives in a parenthesis between two historical eras, the first of which is dying, but its devotees are procrastinating over performing the last rights. The second of which is in the pains of birth but the welcomers can’t find the right midwife.” OPERI wishes people to think of the pilot program it proposes as a midwife that can do the job, and it urges educators to thoroughly investigate it.

In conclusion, consider the words of Daniel Pink found in his book Drive. “Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word ‘management’ onto the linguistic ash heap alongside ‘icebox’ and ‘horseless carriage.’ This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” The pilot program is walking a path between two eras. It is calling for both good change management and greater self-direction.