The Pilot

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 value of the pilot program described here is best assessed keeping in mind this quote and the Ken Robinson video titled: Changing Education Paradigms.


The pilot offers a responsible way for people to explore a different approach to public education. It begins small, but it can grow as people come to appreciate its benefits, and the rate of growth can be managed in accordance with people’s readiness to explore a little further. Although the pilot is conservative, it puts us on the path to cost efficient public education designed for the 21st century and the needs of all students.

The pilot is designed for secondary schools, but today’s young children stand to gain the most from early implementations of it. By acting now, the program can be well-established by the time today’s young get to high school, and when people see the ideas working, they will figure out ways to apply them in lower grades. It is therefore imperative that the parents, educators and caregivers of young children, as well as those living and working with older students, become proactively involved in bringing about needed change.

The elimination of school bells forms the core of the pilot. Formal scheduling, the practice of dividing the school day into fixed chunks of time, is described by Larry Rosenstock, a co-founder of High Tech High, as the single greatest impediment to educational innovation. As soon as students are free of the bells, the vast array of learning opportunities available in their communities and beyond become accessible.

The elimination of formal scheduling requires a change of roles for students and teachers. Students become more self-directed, and teachers become facilitators, coaches, mentors and co-learners. The primary curriculum becomes the 21st century learning skills needed for independent, lifelong learning. These skills are applied to learning the material contained in courses that the Ministry of Education requires students to take. It produces the effect of getting “two birds with one stone.” Students work on much needed learning skills and a knowledge of traditional course content is acquired like a by-product.

Self-direction is the focus of Daniel Pink’s book Drive. He contends that people today must become more autonomous, more responsible for self and more involved in making decisions that affect them. He says, “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.”

Strengths of the Pilot

  1. It’s easy to implement.
  2. It requires no new funding and can lead to greater quality for less cost.
  3. It presents no risk to students.
  4. It addresses issues of community and equality.
  5. It meets the Ontario Ministry of Education requirements.
  6. It opens the door to a wealth of opportunities for students to explore the real world.
  7. It gives students a chance to try out a different approach to learning without leaving their community school or getting behind in their courses.
  8. It improves the opportunities for students and teachers to establish caring and trusting relationships.
  9. It invites the integration of subjects and the development of project-based learning, experiential learning, community service learning, democratic values, citizenship, and much more.
  10. It provides a terrific opportunity to gain insight into the illusive 21st century learning model.

Opportunities For Needed Research

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 can 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.

Despite all that the pilot has to offer, there is very little new about it. It mostly tweaks and combines things that are already happening, but done right, it’s a game changer.

The Mechanics

The pilot involves approximately 25 secondary students in a community school. It requires a single classroom and the equivalent of one teacher/facilitator. The students work on four Ministry courses and write the same final exams as other students. Existing resources are reallocated to provide for it, so no new funding is required.

Students choose to enrol in in the pilot, and the only criteria for their acceptance is that they come to school to learn. They sign up for one semester, and then decide to either remain in the program or return to the regular program.

The primary curriculum focus is the skills required for independent, life-long learning. These skills would be practiced using the curriculum of the students’ four Ministry courses. Knowledge of the courses would therefore develop as a by-product of practicing the skills of independent learning.

The role of the teacher becomes that of facilitator, coach, guide on the side, mentor, role model and co-learner. It involves cultivating a learning community where everyone is a teacher and a learner. The following are some of the skills the teacher would help the students to develop.

  • 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 would be required to study the Ontario Ministry of Education documents outlining the objectives for their courses. With guidance from the teacher, they would then develop and execute their learning plans taking into account every possible resource in and out of school that could help them accomplish their learning goals.

The vast new opportunities

The course credits available to students through the pilot could include virtually every sanctioned course. Schools may not have all of the resources readily available for a particular course, and this creates an opportunity for students to learn about what it is to be resourceful. Materials could be borrowed from other places, and ways could be found to improvise for a lack of facilities like shops and science labs. Experts and learning groups in other places could be accessed through the Internet. The message for students is that if there is something they want to do, then they have to figure out how best to learn it. It helps to prepare them embrace learning challenges throughout life when there is no one to tell them what to do. The expansion of Ministry courses available also provides students with more opportunity to pursue their interests and talents.

Diversity is a factor to consider when deciding the composition of the pilot group. Unlike traditional classrooms that tend to be homogeneous in order for teachers to deliver the curriculum efficiently, learning environments that are more self-directed need to be designed for students to be both learners and teachers. The more diverse the students are, the more they will have to learn from one another. The recommended composition of a pilot group is a good cross-section of a high school’s student population. This would maximize diversity among students and provide the best view of how self-directed learning might form the basis of a new paradigm for public education.

Perhaps the greatest contributor to the richness of learning environments is age-mixing. We see the power of it when young children are freely playing with older ones. The Sudbury Valley School, a long-running democratic school, refers to it as its secret weapon when explaining how its students learn. The greater the age span, the greater the diversity of the learning group, and so the greater the potential for age mixing to increase learning. Aiming to include students from all grade levels would therefore make the best starting point for a pilot, but it could run with less of an age span where conditions required it.

Another major benefit to age mixing is highlighted by a story from a program similar to the proposed pilot. The program ran in an Ottawa school for a couple of semesters and it included students from grades 10 to 12. About six weeks into the program, a couple of participating grade 12 boys approached the teacher with a confession. They said they enrolled in the program because they wanted to work on computers all day, and that they had no intentions of working with the little grade 10 kids. They then proudly added, with the air of having reached a finer place in life, that they no longer even noticed the age differences. It is a story that supports the view of Akbar Ahmed who said, “You cannot shoot someone you have gotten to know.” He made the comment during the Daniel Pearl Dialogue for Muslim-Jewish Understanding and it speaks to the problem of bullying in schools. The uniformity that results from homogeneous classes makes students who are different stand out, and this makes them targets for bullies. The boy’s story suggests that bullying might be less of a problem in self-directed learning environments where students can better see the humanity in each other.

In the early days of the Ottawa program, a husband and wife team of Myers-Briggs specialists was brought in to conduct a full-day workshop. The purpose of it was to cultivate a strong community of learners and to help students discover things about themselves that would aid their learning. The morning was spent with everyone, including the teacher, completing the Myers-Briggs personality types indicator to determine their types. The specialists then described the characteristics of the various types. The afternoon was spent looking at how different personalities relate to each other and how some are more compatible than others. Everyone was encouraged to rise to the challenge of learning to work constructively with everyone, no matter how incompatible they might be. The teacher reminded the students of this challenge through the semester reinforcing the idea that the better we get at working with all types, the more empowered we will be to walk into any new situation and make the best of it. For the Ottawa group, the Myers-Briggs workshop was fun and informative, but there was a cost to bringing in the specialists that the students themselves covered. Teachers could likely achieve the same results using surveys and team building activities that are cost-free.

The pilot puts an emphasis on learning efficiently. The challenge is to accomplish learning tasks with a minimum of wasted time, and there is good motivation for the students to rise to it. The more efficiently they can learn what they are required to learn, the more time they will have to learn what they want to learn. This is not to suggest any diminishing of the quality of learning. Students are expected to maintain high standards and the teacher helps them to understand what it means to really know something and how to hold oneself accountable. Attitudes and techniques for self-evaluation are constantly promoted. It is said that you don’t really know something until you have taught it, and in self-directed learning environments there are endless opportunities for students to teach others. Understanding and caring for others is cultivated through helping each other learn. The quote, “If you want to feel good about yourself, do something for someone else,” could be displayed somewhere in the class.

With the emphasis on learning efficiently students have the opportunity to see how integrating course can lead to better learning in less time than through studying subjects separately. They can also use the part of the day when they can best focus to work on their rigorous courses, and if they get on a roll, they can keep going uninterrupted by bells. They can minimize the time spent going over what they already know, and lay a better base to more quickly grasp new learning by spending time to properly understand concepts as they go. They also save the time spent in a regular school day on changing classes, and the start-up and wrap-up processes in each class.

Accountability is an issue, but it is about holding oneself accountable.  It forces honesty and the clarification of ones goals. The idea that there is no free lunch, and that there is nothing to be gained from fooling oneself can be informal topics for discussion. These discussions would be built on relations of caring and trust. They would be personal and frank about what the student wants to accomplish, the kind of person he or she wants to be, and how to achieve them. Strategies for learning what we are naturally disinclined to learn are discussed as curriculum in the pilot.

The more efficiently students can learn, the more time they will have for other things, and this is where the pilot gets most interesting. Innovative students and teachers can use that time to explore the infinite possibilities that are brought to mind by groups like LRNG with its video titled Evolution of Learning. Students in the Ottawa program regularly did their course work at home in the evening so that they had more time for other things during the school day.

The Ottawa program referred to above was called CHIP. It serves as a prototype for the pilot described here. It is presented in more detail under the menu option: The CHIP Program Overview.

Other considerations

When it comes to assessing the success of an operating pilot, one needs to keep in mind a quote from Einstein used in the film Beyond Measure: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” There is considerable concern that schools are measuring the things that can be easily counted and ignoring the things that matter most. A proper assessment of the pilot must be based on more than the grades students obtain in their courses. It needs to take into account levels of student engagement and wellbeing, and also the amount of incidental or collateral learning that occurs. These kinds of assessments don’t lend themselves to short term hard data collection. In the long term, hard data could be obtained by studying dropout rates, people’s level of depression, suicide rates, substance abuse, divorce rates, child abuse incidents, career success, citizenship, independence, along with other indicators that could give measure to possible differences between teacher-directed versus more self-directed learning environments. In the short term, the evaluation of the pilot would need to be based on responses to survey and anecdotal evidence provided by the people directly involved in the pilot.

“What about the students who need structure,” is a question that often arises during discussions of self-directed learning. It implies that some students are incapable of managing their own learning, but it does not take into account that these students will not always have adults to direct their learning; they must learn to do it for themselves. Through the pilot, the students gain experience in taking responsibility for themselves. With the teacher helping students to develop effective, individualized learning plans the students develop a fuller understanding of themselves as learners and how to create the conditions they need to achieve their learning goals. Every student, those who need structure and those who are more freewheeling, will therefore have a substantial opportunity to grow as individuals.

Even with rigorous courses like math, students stand to benefit from self-direction. By putting the emphasis on developing analytical reading skills, students can learn to use the math textbook as a manual for self-teaching. They can access online lessons like those provided by the Kahn Academy, and other resources such as their peers. By being in control of their time, students can spend as long as they need on a concept, and they can step out of the prescribed sequence of lessons to do remediation if some prerequisite knowledge is lacking. From this perspective, it could be said that math is a subject that calls for a self-directed approach to learning.

An option when it comes to staffing a pilot is to include two teachers. One would be on duty in the morning and the other in the afternoon. During their other half-day, the teachers would work in the regular program. Involving two teachers provides students with two mentors, two adult role models, and perhaps twice the expertise in subject areas. The two teachers would support each other and solve problems together. They could also provide a more comprehensive vision of how to facilitate learning in a self-directed environment. They would be the pioneers of a new age of learning where teachers are needed as much as ever in helping students to reach their full potential.

Malcolm Knowles who wrote The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy 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. From his studies of these adult learners he developed the following Principles of Adult Learning. Advocates of self-directed learning would say that these principles apply to learners of all ages. The pilot is designed to apply them with young learners.

The principles state that adults 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


The pilot offers to provide considerable insight about how to address the learning needs of the young, and it can be implemented with no new funding. Secondary school staff anywhere are urged to seek approval to run a pilot in their school and to share what they learn with others.  OPERI will do what it can to network the schools that undertake a pilot, and to provide information for those looking to start one. Feel welcome to contact us to share your thoughts and actions, and also to get answers to questions.